LOS ANGELES – Robert Redford does his most compelling work in some time as both actor and director in “The Company You Keep,” a tense yet admirably restrained thriller about a fugitive forced out of hiding after 30 years to prove his innocence. Adapted with clarity and intelligence by Lem Dobbs from Neil Gordon’s novel, and lent distinguishing heft by its roster of screen veterans, this gripping drama provides an absorbing reflection on the courage and cost of dissent.
Recalling aspects of Sidney Lumet’s poignant “Running on Empty” from 1988, but with a more subdued emotional palette, the film opens with vintage-style news footage detailing charges against members of radical antiwar group the Weather Underground in the early 1970s for plotting to blow up buildings in multiple U.S. cities. A second report follows, attributing responsibility to the same group for a Michigan bank robbery during which a security guard was killed. While the robbers were identified, only one was ever apprehended.
Back in the present, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), who was involved in the robbery and has been living in hiding as a Vermont housewife in the decades since, is preparing to turn herself in to the FBI when she is arrested entering New York State. Coverage from aggressive young Albany newspaper reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) links her to local civil rights lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), who declined to take Solarz’s case.
Eager to impress his prickly editor (Stanley Tucci), Ben exploits his access to Diana (Anna Kendrick), a college hookup now working for the bureau. Despite warnings from her boss Cornelius (Terrence Howard) to back off, Ben persists, digging for insights. His legwork reveals that while Jim has long been a respected community member, raising his 11-year-old daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho of Pittsburgh) alone since the death of his wife in an accident a year earlier, no record of him exists before 1979. Putting two and two together, Ben discovers, just ahead of the Feds, that Jim is Nick Sloan, another of the Michigan robbers.
This establishing action is set up with methodical efficiency in Dobbs’ screenplay, gaining momentum when Jim/Nick whisks Isabel out of town and into the care of his brother (Chris Cooper) just as the FBI is closing in. Meanwhile, Ben continues to look for neat answers to messy questions. But a prison interview with Sharon gives him some understanding of the commitment and idealism of the `70s radicals. This affecting scene – Sharon shows regret for the mistakes that were made but refuses to repudiate her convictions – is played with perspicacity, toughness and compassion by Sarandon.
Propelled by another moody score from Cliff Martinez (“Drive,” “Contagion”) that adds a contemporary edge to Redford’s solidly conventional style, the remainder of the film plays out in pursuit mode.
Dropping in on former Weather Underground cronies, some more welcoming than others, Nick hopes to smoke out his ex-lover Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), the one person able to clear his name. This allows for brief but incisive appearances from Nick Nolte as a lumberyard owner still wearing his “Liberty or Death” T-shirt; and Richard Jenkins as a college professor who stayed above ground and fears that Nick’s visit may compromise him.
Still a step ahead of the FBI, Ben has located Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), the investigating officer on the Michigan case, who is cagey with him, but his daughter Rebecca (Brit Marling) unexpectedly sheds light. It becomes clear to the reporter that Nick is not running toward another assumed identity but toward a solution that will give him back his life and his daughter. Ben also discovers old links between Osborne’s family and Mimi’s, leading him to a remote cabin on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
While it provides for some passing commentary on the journalistic process and the slow death of print media, making the ambitious reporter such a driving figure perhaps mutes the focus a little. LaBeouf acquits himself well in the role. But tracking Ben’s slow-blooming integrity is a somewhat prosaic detour in the concluding scenes, occasioning some speechy wisdom from Nick when they finally meet again.
The storytelling is nonetheless robust and thematically rich, strengthened by a fine cast. Redford has done this kind of earnest man of conscience countless times before, but he brings such gravitas and thoughtfulness to play that he keeps us firmly in Nick’s corner.
While Sam Elliott, as Mimi’s current partner, Cooper and Tucci are given little to do, Christie, Nolte, Jenkins, Gleeson and Sarandon all use their limited screen time to maximum effect.
It’s remarkable how much texture these faces add to the film’s depiction of a generation with a fire in its belly that has had to adapt to a different world or find other ways to channel their impassioned ideas.
Among the younger cast, the always sparky Kendrick is underused. But Marling makes a lovely impression in her handful of scenes, outlining a young woman whose sharp mind and restless, questioning nature make her a link to the countercultural past.
Editor Mark Day keeps the pace satisfyingly steady, and the film is shot by Adriano Goldman in a handsome but unshowy style to match the script’s sober approach.
“The Company You Keep,” an SPC release, is rated R for language. Running time: 125 minutes.