“The Company You Keep”: Redford is a radical on the run

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“The Company You Keep” opens Friday at Eastgate and Sundance Cinemas. R, 2:05, 2.5 stars out of 4.

What’s the one thing I never thought I’d see missing from a political thriller directed by Robert Redford? Politics.

“The Company You Keep” is a film about former ’60s antiwar radicals on the run decades later, but it takes no stand ā€“ has no interest, really ā€“ on the rightness or wrongness of what they actually did. Instead, it’s an intriguing thriller with a heavyweight cast from top to bottom that only intermittently realizes its potential.

Redford stars as John Grant, a do-gooder lawyer in upstate New York. When a member of the Weather Underground (Susan Sarandon) is captured nearby after 30 years on the run and charged with the murder of a bank guard, Grant declines to take her case. Which strikes ambitious local newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) as a little odd, since it’s the sort of bleeding-heart case that Grant would usually jump at.

So he greases some palms in local government, pulls at some threads, and discovers that Grant himself is a former member of the Underground, Nick Sloan. Grant/Sloan goes on the run, reconnecting with a web of old comrades (Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, and Julie Christie among them) as he crosses the country (including a quick stop in Milwaukee).

Meanwhile, Shepard digs into the Michigan bank case and starts raising doubts about Sloan’s guilt. The film criss-crosses between both characters before they finally reunite in remote mountain cabin, the FBI closing in.

I’m not quite sure, in the broadest strokes, what Redford or screenwriter Lem Dobbs (“The Limey,” “Haywire”) were going for here. They don’t want to re-litigate the politics of the Vietnam era, for sure. But the film only makes a passing attempt to be a tense “Fugitive”-like innocent-man-on-the-run style thriller. (And Terence Howard, who plays the FBI agent in charge of the manhunt, is no Tommy Lee Jones.)

The overarching theme seems to be that of reflection, of old firebrands reckoning with what they did as young radicals, and if it was worth it. “We’re a story told to children now,” Sloan says at one point. “But I’m glad somebody’s still telling it.”

If the energy and purpose of the overall film flags at times, there’s still enough to hold your interest in “The Company You Keep.” That’s largely due to the almost ridiculously high-level cast, including not only the names mentioned above but Stanley Tucci, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick and Chris Cooper. By the time Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling appear late in the film as the retired detective in charge of the bank robbery case, and his daughter, I actually laughed out loud. It’s like the “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” of political thrillers.

Redford seems more concerned with keeping all the characters and all the different threads of plot from getting tangled, and I think he keeps a steady hand on the till. He’s so concerned with story that he’s less successful with giving his cast enough room to breathe, but there are moments that shine. Sarandon has a dynamite interrogation-room scene that rings with both exhaustion and conviction, and Redford and Christie spar effectively in a scene late in the film over the legacy of the Weather Underground.

But the breakout star, shockingly for me, was LaBeouf, an actor I’ve never particularly cared for. His Ben Shepard is one of the best portrayals of a journalist I’ve ever seen in a film, a mix of drive and pride and ambition, often confusing personal ego for the public interest. It’s not a terribly likable portrait but it rings true, one of those last, flawed crusaders in a slowly dying print newsroom.

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