It feels oddly rude to complain about a movie like The Company You Keep, with its sprawling cast of oft-underused actors from across generations and its well-intentioned plot, which sweeps Vietnam-era radicals up and drops them into the present. But Robert Redford’s latest film is an unsettled mixed bag, despite valiant efforts from Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins and Nick Nolte (to name just a few). It’s so thick with plot that you might wish it had been a miniseries, with more time for some of the threads — and actors — to make their mark.
Company revolves around two men, the younger of which, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), is a cocky young journalist looking to break a story that will make his career. Ben never says as much, but it’s there in his questions, his brashness and the frequent jabs other characters make at modern journalism. When Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former member of the Weather Underground, is picked up on her way to New York to turn herself in for a crime committed 30 years ago, Ben starts digging. A tip from a former classmate leads him to a public interest lawyer, Jim Grant (Redford), whose secrets are very quickly revealed.
At times, the flatly lit Company seems almost to have scenes missing, and never more so than when Ben is piecing together Grant’s backstory; his leaps of logic and intuition in the span of a day or so are apparently more than the FBI could manage in three decades. (Terrence Howard has the thankless job of playing the stern FBI agent barking orders at his hapless team.) More often, it’s just in a hurry, moving its players across the country and into each others’ paths: Grant, whose real name is Nick Sloan, drops his young daughter with his brother (Cooper) and heads west, which baffles his pursuers. (It may baffle moviegoers how Grant’s stupid attempts at hiding don’t get him caught immediately.) Meanwhile, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) ditches her righteous, pot-dealing California life (and a very mellow Sam Elliott) to head inland, where she has one almost-lovely scene with Nick that sets the stage for the film’s cop-out of an ending.
Ben’s leads take him to Michigan, where he meets a cop (Brendan Gleeson) whose history intersects with that of Lurie and Sloan. That cop has a daughter, Rebecca (Brit Marling), to whom Ben is immediately drawn. It’s too reductive to say that Rebecca is the reason Ben eventually grows a conscience, but it’s also awfully convenient that it’s a pretty young woman whose character leads Ben to question his job (if not quite his motives; journalism bears at least as much of the blame as Ben’s self-interest). But there’s quite a bit of convenience in Company, which aims to be a conversation-starter about the conflicts that come with aging: priorities and politics, idealism and pragmatism and the different things that matter at different times in your life. (It may also mean to raise questions about violence and dissent, but those get lost in the mix.) Do you grow up and get responsible, or is that how you explain yourself when you grow up and give up your youthful ideals? Do these things look different from the outside? Or, as the movie’s oversimplified ending suggests, do you grow up and accept that nothing matters but the next generation of potential idealists/revolutionaries/lawyers? The Company You Keep tries to split the difference between thriller and thought piece and winds up in a no-man’s land between the two.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP: Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon. Cinematography, Adriano Goldman. Editor, Mark Day. Music, Cliff Martinez. Starring Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Julie Christie, Susan Sarandon, Terrence Howard, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson and Brit Marling. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013. R. 121 minutes. Three Stars.