Although Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep has been billed as an action thriller, it is in reality a solemn, deliberately-paced rumination on the ramifications of political ideology and how time may or may not lead to changes in perception. Whatever elements of a thriller it does contain are intentionally made to be as low key as possible; never once are we gripping our armrests or chewing our lips in sheer suspense. Instead, we simply watch intently as the characters go from one situation to the next, each a logical progression of what came before it within the context of the story. Some may find this approach disappointing, and I admit that at times the film is a little too languid for its own good. However, once you accept that the film is more about character and theme than action, you just might get something out of it.
Adapted from the novel by Neil Gordon, the story concerns itself with characters that were once part of the Weather Underground, a radical anti-Vietnam War group known for the bombings of government buildings and banks. Once united by their cause, all were somehow involved with a 1970s bank robbery in Michigan that resulted in the murder of an off-duty security guard. Since then, they’ve gone into hiding and have created entirely new lives for themselves. One such person is Jim Grant (Redford), the widowed single father of an eleven-year-old daughter named Isabelle (Jackie Evancho) and an attorney living in Albany. When another former Weather Underground member, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), is finally caught and arrested, an ambitious young reporter named Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) begins to cover the story.
It strikes Shepard as odd that Grant wouldn’t take Solarz’s case, given the fact that she came to Albany to visit a personal friend (Stephen Root) who just happens to be one of Grant’s clients. The more Shepard tries to question Grant, the more evasive Grant becomes. Grant, realizing that Shepard could dig too deeply into the past and discover his true identity, takes Isabelle and goes on the run. His first stop is New York City, where he will have to leave his daughter in the custody of his brother (Chris Cooper); he will then go on a cross-country journey trying find a woman named Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), another former member of the Weather Underground. Along the way, he will cross paths with two former accomplices, played by the likes of Nick Nolte and Richard Jenkins.
In hot pursuit is an FBI task force led by Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard), who wants to catch Grant largely because he has been making the entire FBI look bad for the last thirty years. Also on Grant’s trail is Shepard, in part because he’s under pressure from his boss (Stanley Tucci), but largely because he’s becoming consumed with the case. The deeper Shepard digs, the more it begins to look like that Grant isn’t running away so much as trying to clear his name. Is it possible that, despite his affiliation with the Weather Underground, he had nothing to do with the bank robbery and the subsequent murder? His investigation leads him to Michigan, where he meets Henry Osborne, the officer who first investigated the robbery (Brendan Gleeson), and his adopted daughter, Rebecca (Brit Marling).
The story has the usual twists and turns, although none of them are all that surprising. Then again, perhaps surprise really wasn’t what Redford was aiming for; he seems more interested in examining the psychological effects of being a fugitive for a cause that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. All the former Weather Underground members have varying feelings over their involvement and its overall importance. Some, like Solarz, believe that, while mistakes were certainly made, what they stood for was right, and if she had the chance to do it all over again, she would. Others, like Grant, believed in it at the time but now thinks the price he paid for it was too high. I suspect he believed more in an ideal than in a reality, and he has probably come to realize that as he has gotten older. Others still, like Lurie, haven’t stopped living life as ultra liberal rebels and appear to be unwavering in their support of the Weather Underground – or, at the very least, to its philosophy.
One of the issues with the Lurie character is that she’s developed on little apart from sweeping generalizations of left-wing ideology. When we first see her, she’s on a private yacht importing marijuana off the coast of California, and almost all of her dialogue consists of tirades against the perceived evils of the American government. When she and Grant finally reunite, it becomes a crisis of conscience: Does she help Grant out by turning herself in, or does she remain true to her staunchly antiauthoritarian principles? The answer doesn’t come as that great of a shock, perhaps because the film in general isn’t all that energetic. While The Company You Keep could have benefited from a sense of urgency and tighter pacing, the casting is decent, the performances are engaging, and the central theme is just compelling enough to hold the audience’s attention.
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Sony Pictures Classics