Can’t-miss premise, intelligent script, taut direction, outstanding cast…where did Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep go wrong? It’s the kind of refined, faultlessly-produced film that always seems like it should be playing out better than it is. But there’s one real problem in the storytelling that prevents this from becoming a fully-compelling thriller.
Redford stars as former Weather Underground activist Nick Sloan, who takes it on the lam after thirty years in hiding – leaving his young daughter with brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) – after accomplice Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested for a 1970s bank robbery that resulted in the death of a security guard.
So Nick is running from the FBI, represented by agents Cornelius (Terrence Howard) and Diana (Anna Kendrick). But he’s not just on the lam – he’s not going into hiding again. He’s after something, although we have no idea what throughout most of the movie. Bits of info are slowly fed to us before the big reveal at the end.
In essence, the film becomes something like The Fugitive, only we don’t know that Richard Kimble is searching for the one-armed man; we know that he’s after something, but the specifics are left for a ‘twist’ ending that puts some perspective on the rest of the film.
Only…it’s never a ‘twist’. It’s just a bit of information that is tantalizingly withheld from us in the name of technique; storytelling that becomes about the storytelling rather than the story. We’re acutely aware that a revelation is coming by the end, and therefore are less interested in the events of the film than we should be. We’re just waiting for information to be given to us, rather than becoming involved in what’s happening on screen.
I keep seeing this kind of storytelling in movie after movie. I miss the days when the audience knew what was happening in a film, and could actually build up a rooting interest in the events and their outcome.
But in all areas other than the script (by Lem Dobbs, from the novel by Neil Gordon), The Company You Keep is so capably handled that the intrusive storytelling might be forgiven. Almost, but not so fast: the end of the film nearly self-destructs with a conclusion that doesn’t seem to make any kind of sense. I don’t want to reveal anything, but why was this the key to the puzzle? Couldn’t the same result have been accomplished through someone else? Why would the FBI be so quick to…?
In any event, the storytelling conceit dictates that we need a character to identify with given all: the main character becomes reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who we follow around as he follows Redford’s Nick around. With no character arc, or anything, really, of interest to add to the story, the reporter quickly becomes little more than a distraction.
Along the way, Nick comes into contact with a number of familiar faces: Stephen Root, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliot, and Julie Christie all show up as characters with vague connections to Nick’s criminal past.
Now, the movie about the Redford character coming out of hiding, taking it on the lam, digging around his Weather Underground past, with this supporting cast – that sounds fascinating. But the movie about LaBeouf’s reporter following him around – which is what The Company You Keep becomes – is inherently disappointing; it’s a movie about watching the movie, rather than the movie itself.