The Company You Keep
Starring Robert Redford, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling
A good thriller seems to be a lost commodity in this day and age where every weekend feels like an excuse for an event film—a high-brow drama aimed at the cerebral set should be cause for celebration. But “The Company You Keep” is a thriller that feels like it should be smarter than it is. All the basic elements for an intelligent thriller are there: mystery, scrappy reporters, FBI agents in hot pursuit, and high-minded political philosophy from a more troubling time.
Some may or may not have heard of the Weather Underground Organization or their radical beliefs. They were a wonderfully sanctimonious group of activists who believed America needed to be overthrown and decided to protest by bombing government buildings. To be fair, it was when Nixon was in office, so the animosity can at least be partially understood, even if not justified.
Jim Grant (Robert Redford) is a well-intentioned lawyer trying to care for his daughter after the death of his wife. He begins to get unwanted attention from some old acquaintances by asking for their help after one of the former members of WUO is arrested after 30 years on the run. Grant is uninterested and unwary of the attention it brings—specifically from a focused young reporter named Ben Sheppard (Shia LaBeouf). Ben is a small-market reporter looking for a good story, and he’s stumbled head-first into a doozy. After digging through some of the details, he outs Grant as a former member of WUO. Suddenly Grant goes from loving father to fugitive, and has to try and orchestrate a plan that will clear his name. It seems some of his colleagues were involved in a robbery that ended with a security guard being murdered.
The film starts out with a great deal of energy and a brisk pace. The setup is effective, and they take no time getting the manhunt moving. For at least one act, it feels like the film could be a politically minded version of “The Fugitive.” Unfortunately, it never reaches that level of tension.
In fact, tension is the one element this movie sorely lacks. The film is so deficient in thrills, it is practically anemic. And the politics are so sloppily handled. Watching a bunch of aging hippies sit around and complain about the state of the world is about as interesting as Ralph Nader hosting a dinner party featuring the musical stylings of Tony Orlando and Dawn.
There’s some admirable qualities to “The Company You Keep,” most notably the cast. There are a ridiculous amount of talented actors in this movie. Surprisingly, Robert Redford is the least interesting member of the cast. He’s an emotionless, monotone drone for whom the audience will find almost impossible to root. The cast surrounding him is far more spry.
Shia LaBeouf shows a lot of charisma and presence in the kind of role Redford would have played 40 years ago. This is something of a revelation given that all we’ve seen him do for the last 10 years is scream “optimus!” at the top of his lungs in the Transformers series. It turns out he can turn in quite a compelling performance in spite of what was read on Alec Baldwin‘s Twitter account.
The film seems stocked with a plethora of senior-citizen character actors. Nick Nolte, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Chris Cooper, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins and Sam Elliott are among them. It’s like a Hollywood version of an “Early Bird Special.” More over, the inspired supporting cast seems like a waste in this movie.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Redford as an actor; I find him a far more compelling director. As I watched the film (which he also directed), I kept wishing he had cast someone else in his role. There’s no gravitas or weight to Redford. No fragility. He’s a blank slate here. He saps every opportunity for enthusiasm from the finished film. The word “cruise control” kept popping into my head.
So what “The Company We Keep” ends up being is a political thriller that lacks thrills and features some silly politics. It’s well-intentioned but never lives up to a very promising first act. It’s unfortunate because there are so few types of movies like this finding its way to cinemas, and every missed opportunity is another justification for studios to replace it with big-budget, computer-generated, attention-span-killing monstrosities.
There may be some who find this kind of slow, plodding confection justifiable. But the movie had to fight its way to get to average, and in my book, you can never call that a win.