Director: Robert Redford (Quiz Show, Horse Whisperer, River Runs Through It, Lions for Lambs)
Novel: Neil Gordon
Screenplay: Lem Dobbs
Producers: Nicolas Chartier, Bill Holderman, Robert Redford
Starring: 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
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 125 min.
How far does idealism go? Does it require personal sacrifice? Does it conquer any and all familial loyalties? Can personal relationships take precedence, or does everything ultimately play second fiddle to your own moral convictions? These questions and many more ruminate deep within the many assorted characters of Robert Redford’s reflective new feature, The Company You Keep. Based on the novel by Neil Gordon, adapted to the screen by Lem Dobbs, the title proves to be the focal point for these characters as one’s decision in the opening scene sets into motion an outpour of ramifications for the former members of the Weather Underground activists. Set in the present day, the surviving members of this group have spent the past few decades in hiding, eventually having moved on with their lives and finally gotten to a place where they were able to create families and settle down into a place of normalcy.
As the film opens, one of these members, Sharon Solarz (played with heartbreaking conviction by the great Susan Sarandon), has made the decision to turn herself in after decades of hiding. The story of her and her co-conspirators is taken up by young ace reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), and when he interviews her one of the first questions he asks is why she chose now to come forward and serve the sentence that she has long eluded. Her reasoning? It’s no surprise that the guilt became too much to handle, but she explains that her rationale for waiting so long was that she needed the time for her children to be old enough to remember her but not so old that they wouldn’t be able to live their normal lives without her. Played with superb chemistry by the simultaneously arrogant and naive LaBeouf against the tragic, hauntingly remorseful Sarandon, this important scene is one of many that delicately hits on that core theme of where your personal cause ends and your responsibility for those outside of yourself begins.
The Company You Keep ponders on how far idealism can go before it gives way to an almost immature narcissism, if it does at all. Is it selfish to sacrifice your family for your personal cause, or is the true selfishness in putting your family above anything and anyone else? These characters are forced to ask this question of themselves and their personal answers drive the momentum of Redford’s film and clash them against one another. After discovering the decision that Solarz has made, widowed father Jim Grant (Redford) gets into contact with former comrades long left silent in order to seek out past flame Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). Lurie is the answer to his need to protect his only daughter, and the plot here is driven by his search to find her, a search that sees him dig up old contacts and force everyone to reflect on the choices they’ve made.
While Grant, whose real name is revealed to be Nick Sloan, is hunted for his crimes by the FBI, led by Terrence Howard’s dogged agent, Redford stages the majority of his film as a series of conversations between these former activists just trying to move on in their new lives. Digging up the history of these characters opens up a lot of old wounds that will never heal, and one of the primary strengths of The Company You Keep is in the way it posits that one can never truly outrun their past. Whether or not they’ve moved on and settled into new lives, these characters will never escape the sins of their youth and they will always be forced to live with the consequences of their actions. These people see the pain they’ve caused and that catalyst in the opening scene drives a story that causes them all to take a moment to look inside themselves and come face-to-face with the choices they’ve made.
Led by Redford and LaBeouf, who proves that there’s still plenty of room in modern Hollywood for this kind of hotshot reporter even if it’s a dying career field, the director loads his ensemble cast with a plethora of tremendous talent. It’s nothing new to state that it’s hard in American cinema to find plum roles for veteran actors, but The Company You Keep was built with more than enough room to get some of the finest talent of the day into roles that utilize their immense skill and for the most part they more than deliver. I wish that the film had been longer to give a little more development to some of the supporting cast, but still these actors are able to bring an emotional sincerity to their roles that is effective and lasting. The structure of Dobbs’ script sees these characters flowing in and out with most of them only lasting a scene or two, but each one manages to leave a mark in their reflective pondering on past transgressions. Redford’s cast is supremely capable here, effectively conveying their internal anguish without ever pouring too much of it out on the surface to devolve this more muted story into theatrics.
Along with LaBeouf and Sarandon, the one who stands out in particular is Julie Christie, unsurprisingly making the most of her rare screen turn. When the characters played by her and Redford finally come together, all of those powerful themes come to a clash in a personal debate that sees both of them pushing against one another in service of their beliefs. While most of the characters in The Company You Keep are filled with remorse over their past, Christie’s Mimi has gone the opposite path and never given up her old ways. She still fights for the cause and Christie plays her resilience with a captivating determination that refuses to back down to Sloan’s emotional ploys. In this scene he looks at her and tells her that he can see her true self no matter how much she tries to hide it, that he sees it in her eyes and Christie’s natural gifts allow her to make that moment absolutely believable with the way we (and Sloan) can see her soul right through them.
Redford really made his name working in the paranoia/political thrillers of the ’70s, delivered with great precision by directors like Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula. The Company You Keep is undeniably a throwback to this lost genre of filmmaking (complete with that ace journalist protagonist, a character type we unfortunately never see anymore), but its reflective nature is deceptively employed over a plot that would more traditionally call for adrenaline-pumping sequences of action and suspense. It’s the thematic depth that Redford concerns himself more with than anything else, building the suspense out of these character interactions as opposed to quick-cutting action. It’s a film that feels very much rooted in a lost era rather than the modern day, a move that further compliments the fact that these characters can never escape that decade where they made those decisions whose consequences would reverberate for the rest of their days. Redford also throws in a nice little callback to his starring role in Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, as his final scene here has him wearing the same outfit that he did in that excellent picture.