September 9, 2012


As soon as Robert Redford had enough clout to start generating his own movies, he began starring in and often producing some of the best politically-themed films of the 1970s, including The Candidate, Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men.  Laudably, in this latter portion of his career, he’s continued to be one of the few American filmmakers determined to keep a focus on politics.  Lions For Lambs and The Conspirator, however, weren’t very good, and his new film as star and director THE COMPANY YOU KEEP is only moderately successful.

Back in the 70s, Redford hired superb filmmakers like Sydney Pollack, Michael Ritchie and Alan J. Pakula to direct his movies, and it may have been unlucky that he scored an Oscar home run in 1980 when he made his own directing debut with Ordinary People.  His films since have been a mixed bag, with strong dramas like Quiz Show outnumbered by overly stately vehicles like The Horse Whisperer and The Legend of Bagger Vance, as well as Lambs and Conspirator.  In Redford’s directoral hands, and with a script by Lem Dobbs, what could have been a sprightly, smart thriller is mostly a dull one.

The premise is fine.  Redford plays Jim Grant, an Albany civil rights lawyer who’s been hiding a secret for 30 years:  he’s actually Nick Sloan, a member of the Weather Underground wanted for a bank robbery in which a guard was killed.  Grant’s identity is uncovered by nosy reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LeBeouf) after one of the other robbers (Susan Sarandon) is arrested, and Grant/Sloan goes on the run.  The race is whether Shepard  or the FBI will track him down first, or whether he’ll manage to uncover whatever he’s trying to find as he shuttles across the country.

Redford has also commanded the services of an exceptional cast, probably helped by the movie’s episodic structure, which presumably allowed each actor to only be needed for a few days.  So Julie Christie, Nick Nolte and Richard Jenkins  are among Grant’s former associates, Terrence Howard and Anna Kendrick are in the FBI, Chris Cooper is Redford’s brother, and Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling turn out to be focal points of the ensuing plot.  The problem is in the script and the pace.  It’s OK that along the way of the chase, both sides do very silly things (Redford doesn’t even attempt to change his appearance even though his photo has been broadcast everywhere, apparently because he’s Robert Redford, damn it, while the cops try to sneak up on Redford with sirens squealing)–that’s par for this genre’s course.  Dobbs just hasn’t found much that’s exciting to tell  beyond the set-up (what’s supposed to be the big third act twist is far less interesting than Dobbs and Redford seem to think), and the movie becomes a series of duologues in which Redford and LeBeoouf try to get information from one supporting character after another.  Nor is there any insight to be found here about the revolutionary conflict of the 1970s, apart from the fact that it was very bad to kill innocent people–once the movie makes clear that Redford’s character is in fact innocent of the robbery, it becomes something of a cheat, as well as requiring much contrivance to justify the fact that an innocent man spent 30 years in hiding.

All of this might have still worked if the picture hopped along as a thriller should, but Redford directs in a dogged, uninflected style that just exposes how little substantial content the movie has.  The Company You Keep wastes its chance to be either a fun thriller or an illuminating look at recent history.  The good news is that Redford’s next movie is being directed by J.C. Chandor, who made the superb Margin Call.  In his hands, perhaps Redford can return to something like his prime.





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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."