Mark Reviews Movies

The Company You Keep

THE COMPANY YOU KEEP

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Robert Redford

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

MPAA Rating: R (for language)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 4/5/13 (limited); 4/12/13 (wider)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | April 11, 2013

The last thing we expect a movie about political radicalism to be is apolitical. The Company You Keep could condemn or condone the views of the far-left activists of the late 1960s and early-to-mid 1970s. Either option would be preferable—at least in terms of our involvement in and/or discomfort with what's happening on screen—to the wishy-washy restraint of screenwriter Lem Dobbs (adapting a novel by Neil Gordon) and director Robert Redford's wholly safe approach.

At one point, the wrongly accused protagonist encounters an old acquaintance from his radical days. He is now a professor at a university in Chicago (no mystery as to who that's supposed to be), intellectualizing his beliefs for students who mostly want to be in the same room as someone infamous and telling stories of the glory days of protests that no one wants to have any more. "We've become our parents," he regretfully tells our hero, and the movie itself inadvertently reflects that attitude—a mere shadow of its potential, stuck in a past it doesn't want to acknowledge in any meaningful way and simply going through the present motions.

The movie wants to have it both ways and, as a result, manages to contradict itself at almost every turn, never finding its own way. It wants to admire the passion of its characters' younger selves, who saw injustice in the world and wanted to fight, while constantly reminding us that passion can be misguiding and lead us to become similar beasts to the powers against which we rebel. It's a fair outlook, yes, but it's also an inherently dull one, especially given the ideological bomb that's sitting under the table, ticking away until it just goes silent.

Redford plays Nick Sloan, a man who has lived under an assumed identity and worked as an attorney in Albany for decades. He has a young daughter (Jackie Evancho), whom he raises on his own after the death of wife. In his past, he was a member of the Weather Underground, a radical activist group that had sought to take down the government of the United States, partly in reaction to the Vietnam War.

When the FBI arrests another member of the organization named Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) for participation in a bank robbery that led to the murder of a guard, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), a local upstart reporter under pressure from his editor (Stanley Tucci), begins looking into the case and eventually finds his way to Sloan, who now calls himself "Jim Grant," after learning he refused to be Solarz' lawyer.

After some shady researching tactics, Shepard learns Sloan's true identity and publishes the story, and Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) of the FBI prepares to arrest Sloan. Sloan, meanwhile, takes his daughter out for a day playing hooky from school, leaves her in a hotel room, and drops some papers for his brother (Chris Cooper) to take guardianship of her. He runs, trying to find Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), a member of the Underground who could set the record straight.

Reduced to its basics, the movie is nothing more than an extended, multi-part chase, with the feds trying to find Sloan, Shepard attempting to figure out why the wanted man is acting like he'll be returning to his new old life, and Sloan reuniting with old acquaintances while attempting to figure out the whereabouts of Mimi, who, in turn, is making her way to him. The framework, thankfully, leads to only a few scenes where the pursuit is the focus—anticlimactic bits like Sloan pulling a fire alarm in a hotel or tossing his cell phone into a passing truck to divert the federal agents tracking the device (That sequence in particular comes across as an excuse to engineer a close call).

The meat is in the discussions of the past. Shepard interviews Solarz under the watchful eye of the feds. Her views may have mellowed as she's become accustomed to life with a normal family (a theme that runs throughout the movie), but when he asks her about her former life, she's a firebrand with no regrets and the determination that she would do it all again if given the opportunity.

The cast of ancillary and supporting characters who show up is a collection of strong character actors, from Stephen Root as Solarz' friend who doesn't want any trouble to Richard Jenkins as the Bill Ayers substitute who, no matter how drab his life has become, wants to put everything in the past behind him. Of central importance later are Brendan Gleeson, as the retired police chief who led the case of the robbery/murder decades ago, and Brit Marling, as the former cop's daughter whose life has been affected by the crime in ways she doesn't realize.

The mournful tone of the movie is not mourning the death of an ideology so much as it's grieving what could have been for these characters' lives. It's an admirable sentiment (and the movie delves heavily into sentiment as the past catches up to some of the characters), but we're still left wondering if there's any reason for melancholy admiration for these characters. The Company You Keep doesn't owe us answers, but offering up the right questions would be nice.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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