Following the highly publicized arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former Weather Underground activist charged with a murder/bank robbery 30+ years ago, a young reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), sees a bigger story than just her murder trial. There were others involved in the deadly shooting and Ben begins to dig for information to expose another past Weatherman, Nick Sloane (Robert Redford), and stays one step ahead of the FBI investigators in “The Company You Keep.”
OK, here is my problem with “The Company You Keep.” 76-year old helmer Robert Redford should not cast himself in a role that he is, quite literally, decades too old to play fugitive Nick Sloan, a former member of the Weather Underground who allegedly participated in the bank robbery that ended with a guard lying dead on the floor. Our suspension of disbelief is further tested when we learn that Jim Grant (Nick’s alias that he has been living since the 1970s) is the father of 12-year old Isabel (Jackie Evanch). He could be her grandfather, maybe, but not her father. Redford is a good actor but not good enough to make his character believable, especially when it comes to action scenes. At one point, he looked wizened and old.
The story, adapted from the Neil Gordon novel by Lem Dobbs, is a whirlwind of plotlines and characters. Though Redford is the “star” of the film, it is Shia LaBeouf, as the ambitious newshound, Ben, working for a backwater newspaper in Albany, who centers “The Company You Keep.” When the Solarz story breaks, he begs his editor, Ray Fuller (Stanley Tucci), to assign him to the potentially juicy story about the decades ago murderers being brought to justice. His first target is Jim Grant, a lawyer who turned down the job as Solarz’s defense attorney. But, when he approaches Grant, he is shut down. Undeterred, Ben starts looking into the lawyer’s background and finds that he only began to exist in the 70s.
Meanwhile, the FBI, led by special agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard), tries to get Solarz to identify her accomplices but fails. Ben, on the other hand, begins to dig into Grant’s background and finds the skeletons he had been hiding. When Jim suddenly drops off the radar, leaving Isabel in the care of his younger brother Dan (Chris Cooper), Ben takes chase. What follows is a cross country racing-the-clock chase as Jim calls in old markers with friends, colleagues and acquaintance from back in the day. This results in a who’s who of Hollywood character actors filling many roles, with Julie Christie as Mimi Lurie being the one person who can clear Jim/Nick’s name. Along the way to finding Mimi, Jim seeks assistance from a list of characters too many to describe. But, such veteran thespians as Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Stephen Root and Sam Elliott all lend Jim a hand while Cornelius and his team, including young special agent Diana (Anna Kendrick), begin the nationwide manhunt for Nick. Most of these characters are given cameo treatment but the high caliber of acting talent helps move things along.
Redford does a competent job behind the camera but there is no feel that this is a “Robert Redford film” When Clint Eastwood makes a movie, you know it is a “Clint Eastwood film.” “The Company You Keep” feels generic from start to finish. The great cast of characters, though, raises this up a notch. I give it a B-.
When Weather Underground member Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) gives herself up for a 70's bombing, Albany lawyer Jim Grant's (Robert Redford) cover is blown by local reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf, "Transformers"). The widower wanted as Nick Sloan wanted for murder and bank robbery arranges dropping off his young daughter Isabel (Jackie Evancho) in a NYC hotel room under the guardianship of his brother Daniel (Chris Cooper, "The Town"), barely eluding capture. Shepard, hot on his trail along with the F.B.I. realizes this must only mean he is trying to clear his name in "The Company You Keep."
Director/star Robert Redford ("Quiz Show," "The Conspirator") has gathered an enviable cast for a radical "Big Chill" which makes this middling, timeline-trouncing effort worthwhile. Lem Dobbs ("The Limey") adapted the Neil Gordon novel, but it falls upon Redford to explain such mystical facts as why 70's revolutionaries could have had a daughter still in college in present day or just why not dragging a twelve-year-old on a manhunt so conclusively proves a man is innocent. Still, Sloane's cross-country journey meeting with old friends allows the filmmaker to examine domestic terrorism and its personal aftermath from different angles. The film's both timely and a bit stodgy.
Nick goes from one contact to the next, beginning with Donal Fitzgerald (Nick Nolte), who initially acts unfriendly, but sets Nick up for his next leg. Like Donal, Jed Lewis (Richard Jenkins, "The Cabin in the Woods") was part of the group, but never committed a crime. He soothes his prior idealism as a college professor, but is clearly unsettled by Nick's presence. He does, however, give him an undercover contact to locate the person who is Nick's destination, former lover Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). Mimi returns home from a pot smuggling foray off the coast of Washington and quickly takes off, heading inland, when she learns the news from her current partner Mac (Sam Elliott, "Mask"). Meanwhile, Ben's traced the police chief who investigated Nick's crime, Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson, "Safe House"), who has a personal connection to Mimi. But Ben seems even more interested in Henry's alluring, adopted daughter, Rebecca (Brit Marling, "Arbitrage").
Through all these characters, "The Company You Keep" considers the idea of taking risks for a deeply held belief and how these often criminal acts affect people's lives. Solarz, who hid for decades as a Vermont housewife, waited until her children were grown to come out into the open (Sarandon is very good explaining her motivations to LaBeouf's reporter). Donal and Jed are two sides of the same coin, non-violent advocates for change, whereas Mimi hasn't changed her beliefs one iota since the 60's. The law is represented by hard-headed bloodhound FBI Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, "Hustle & Flow") and his underling Diana (Anna Kendrick, "Pitch Perfect," who must have really wanted to work with Redford given this tiny role). The media also comes under examination, with Redford accusing Ben of using insinuation and threat and Henry cautioning him that some secrets should remain such. (Stanley Tucci, "The Hunger Games," plays Ben's frustrated editor, the voice of fiscal constraint.)
But there are so many bumps along the way, like signposted stops for exposition and 'NYC' set scenes covered in tight shots which won't fool many. There's a lot of talk about WU member Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root, "Office Space"), but I honestly couldn't figure out where this guy fit into the picture. Then there is the central character whose own ethics are overshadowed by his romantic past, including a marriage to a much younger woman who died (and whose existence 'explains' why the 76 year-old Redford would have a twelve year-old daughter).
Redford is looking his age here, which doesn't help the film's disregard for elapsed time, and his character is far less interesting than those in smaller roles. LaBeouf, who has recently rejected commercial films for indies, doesn't show any more range than he has in the past, but Redford plays to that. Sarandon fares best here, but has the least interaction with the other actors. Christie looks fantastic, but Mimi's strident resolve is upended by the script. Nolte is wonderfully gruff while Jenkins paints a more complex picture. Marling adds a tart touch.
"The Company You Keep," with its sampling of 70's cinema stars, is a look at a time of great political upheaval from the distance of age. Like old memories, some things are clearly remembered while others are viewed with nostalgia.
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