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The Company You Keep

Dir:  Robert Redford. US-Canada. 2012. 121mins

There’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned political thriller. But Robert Redford’s story of a former 1970s radical left activist who is unmasked by a keen young reporter could do with being a little more old-fashioned in one respect. A director like Sidney Lumet knew that however good your characters and however telling the social and ethical issues your raise, if you ain’t got tension, you ain’t got a thriller – and it’s in this department that The Company You Keep mostly fails to deliver.

Redford gives a genially authentic performance, but he’s getting a little old for foot chases, and his character is too laid-back to communicate much sense of danger.

Apart from this one fatal flaw this is a reasonably well-crafted package that gives Redford and LaBeouf good rein for their acting abilities and marshals a gallery of veteran US thespians, from Nolte through Cooper to Sarandon, whose entries we half expect to be greeted with canned applause.

Technical credits are solid throughout, but in the end this watchable though rather turgidly paced film feels like a mid-budget studio film from the 1980s, with its Silkwood levels of jeopardy and On Golden Pond family values. This said, that stellar cast will ensure respectable takings when the film rolls out in the States (with Sony Pictures Classics) and worldwide – but The Company You Keep is unlikely to set any territories alight.

Based on the novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, the film sets up its premise via archival footage of early-1970s TV news reports on attacks carried out by the Weather Underground, aka ‘The Weathermen’, the clandestine radical US group that was spawned by the anti-Vietnam protest movements. We learn that several ‘Weathermen’ who killed a security guard in a Michigan bank heist are still on the run thirty years later (this fictional heist was possibly inspired by the 1981 Brinks robbery, in which members of the group were involved).

When one of those on the wanted list, Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), is apprehended, keen and arrogant young Albany reporter Ben Shepard (LaBeouf) sets out on an investigative trail that leads him to upstanding Albany lawyer ‘Jim Grant’ (Redford), a widower who lives alone with his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho, a child singer discovered on America’s Got Talent).

When Ben reveals Jim Grant’s former identity as Nick Sloan, one of the activists wanted for the bank heist, Nick goes on the run, leaving Isabel with his brother (Cooper) and setting off across America on a mission that, it soon becomes clear, has much to do with Mimi (Christie), his former lover and fellow activist. Ben sets off in hot pursuit to get the story he feels will make his career, despite the reluctance of his boss (Tucci) and the hostility of the FBI team that is tracking Sloan’s movements across state lines.

As Nick digs up old comrades like Donal (Nolte at his most grizzly) in the attempt to prove that he had nothing to do with the bank heist, the bespectacled boy reporter and the eternally unlucky FBI investigators close in, very slowly, on their prey. Along the way there’s much agonising about whether it was all worth it, combined with reminders that one of the most destructive home-grown terrorist groups the US has ever seen existed because, as Sarandon’s character puts it in a prison interview she gives to Ben, “our government was killing millions”.

Redford gives a genially authentic performance, but he’s getting a little old for foot chases, and his character is too laid-back to communicate much sense of danger (it doesn’t help that his main mode of disguise consists of pulling his baseball cap further down). One of those odd-coincidence plot twists involving the daughter (Marling) of a former policeman (Gleeson) who worked on the bank-heist case is worth its screen time, but in the main story of Nick’s languid fugitive progress, which seems more Broken Flowers than Bourne, the longueurs set in around the time that Nick pays a call to history professor Jed (Richard Jenkins, solid as ever).

LaBoeuf pays his way as a callous reporter more interested in the buzz of the big story than the human costs of his exposees, but this is hardly a career-best performance. Technical credits are efficient but unexceptional – though Cliff Martinez’s tasty electro-ambient soundtrack goes some way to supplying the tension lacking in the script.

Production companies: Voltage Pictures, Wildwood Enterprises

International sales: Voltage Pictures, www.voltagepictures.com

Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Robert Redford, Bill Holderman

Executive producers: Craig J Flores, Shawn Williamson

Screenplay: Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon

Cinematography: Adriano Goldman

Editor: Mark Day

Production designer: Laurence Bennett

Music: Cliff Martinez

Main cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Susan Sarandon

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