Turns out there’s still a place for old-school journalism beyond fact-checking Trump’s tweets — on the screen. By Greg Fleming

Two of the best slow burner films of last year — Felix Van Groeningen's Beautiful Boy and David Lowery's The Old Man and The Gun — are based on long-form stories by journalists ( Beautiful Boy based on New York Times journalist David Sheff's story and subsequent book and son Nic's memoir about his addiction to crystal meth, while TOMATG is based on David Grann's New Yorker story on septuagenarian bank robber Forrest Tucker).

While TOMATG is a wonderful swan song for Robert Redford, 82, — who has said it's his last movie — Beautiful Boy has 24-year-old Timothee Chalamet in a star-making performance (I'm reminded of Jennifer Lawrence's breakout role in Winter's Bone).

Despite Beautiful Boy's tough subject matter, Van Groeningen concentrates on the impact of the addiction on the father and the family.

There's a white-upper-middle class sheen that, ironically, might make this addiction story more impactful — this ain't The Wire. Expect it to be recommended at Al-Anon meetings.

Advertisement

It's certainly the best-looking drug movie ever — the cinematography sparkles and I definitely want to live in the Sheff family home where much of the film takes place (it's actually the same house used by Zoe Kravitz's character in Big Little Lies). I think the implication is meant to be that if addiction can take hold here — in progressive, early 90s Marin County — it can strike anywhere, but at times I felt I was watching HGTV.

That sense of futility, when well-meaning, urbane and privileged people are up against something as implacable as addiction, is where this draws its power.

Much of the focus is on Steve Carrell (again excellent in a dramatic role) as an earnest father trying to figure out why his young, talented son — a 90s hipster who beats the dash to Nirvana and quotes Bukowski in class — turns to crystal meth. Was it the result of the ugly divorce and subsequent split parenting? His own inattention? Those Bukowski books? Or, is he just a spoilt brat? Earnest Sheff, ever the journo, seeks out medical experts, numerous therapists, and rehab after rehab to little avail.

At one point he even scores some meth from the street and snorts it in an attempt to understand its appeal.

That sense of futility, when well-meaning, urbane and privileged people are up against something as implacable as addiction, is where this draws its power.

At one point Sheff, fed up with his son's constant relapses, shouts at his son — "Solve it!" — as if beating addiction were a Sudoku puzzle.

Beautiful Boy benefits from good performances from a big-name supporting cast, which includes Amy Ryan as Nic's mother and Maura Tierney as the ever-patient step mother. Tierney especially, makes the most of a limited role; a stilted car chase she's involved in is one of the film's most affecting scenes.

Impeccably shot, well-written and boasting great performances, Beautiful Boy is a cautionary tale of privilege but one that never cuts as deep as it should. Its best moments involve the toxic father/son relationship, a fascinating dance of power and control, every bit as destructive as the drug itself. Still, with its vapid surface and uneasy resolution, it's a movie that will play like a horror film to parents of teenagers everywhere.

Robert Redford in The Old Man and The Gun.
Robert Redford in The Old Man and The Gun.

Redford's last stand

The Old Man and the Gun

Advertisement

opens with Tucker, a harmless looking senior citizen with a strange moustache and a hearing aid, standing at a teller's window. He presumably has a gun but we don't see it until he's in the getaway car. His method of demanding money from the teller is polite, robbery with a smile: "Excuse me, I'd like to open up an account." "What kind of account?"

"This kind ..." whereupon he opens his jacket to show his gun.

With the cash secured we're off on a light-as-a-feather ride that plays best as a homage to one of the screen's great stars (there are knowing nods to The Sting and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid).

While Casey Affleck, Danny Glover and Tom Waits head up the supporting cast (check out Waits' "that's why I hate Christmas" speech) — there's no question this is Redford's movie. Lowery allows him room to put that wry charm to full effect; only Sissy Spacek — brilliant as Redford's love interest Jewel — can keep up.

There are some missteps — Affleck — playing a police chief out to catch Tucker and his cohorts is given a thankless role that only reminds you how good Redford still is, and one wonders why Spacek wasn't given more screen time. In one scene, Tucker takes her to a jewellery shop in a mall, they find a bracelet she likes, she tries it on then he motions her to the door and out they go, but within a few steps Jewel — who suspects, but pretends she doesn't know what her late-life boyfriend does for a living — reconsiders and returns to the shop spouting embarrassed apologies. Of course, Tucker then brings out a wad of cash and buys it for her.

Elsewhere there's a couple of scenes with just Redford and Spacek jawing across a diner table; I'd pay to see more of that. Whatever the truth of Tucker's tale — and the film brushes lightly over the reasons for Tucker's life-long criminality — Lowery's picaresque retelling is far better than it has any right to be and that's because of Redford. Thank God we don't have 2017's risible Our Souls At Night as Redford's last stand. Lowery's tongue-in-cheek heist movie sees him out in style.

Beautiful Boy Amazon; The Old Man and the Gun (in theatres).