Much like his underrated and under-seen "Lions for Lambs," Robert Redford's "The Company You Keep," is a film made for and about his generation that contains a warning and indictment aimed directly at the current one.
Using sins from the past as a prism to look at current social ills, the movie examines the ramifications of acting outside the law, as well as those of standing idly by while morally questionable actions occur. As written by Lem Dobbs, who based his screenplay on the novel by Neil Gordon, the film wisely doesn't make heroes out of any of its characters; rather it shows that there is a price to be paid for radical actions as well as indifference.
Redford is Jim Grant, a successful lawyer who does his share of pro bono work while sustaining a small practice and raising his young daughter on his own. He's a respected pillar of the community, but all of this comes crashing down when, hundreds of miles away, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is arrested. The suburban homemaker is charged with terrorist activities stemming from her days as a member of the Weather Underground, a group of radicals from the 1960s.
Seems a bank robbery they conducted some 35 years ago went awry, resulting in the murder of innocents, and Solarz is tired of looking over her shoulder.
Her case gets the attention of slacker reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBoeuf), who senses there's something more to this story. He does some digging, discovers the identities of some of the accused's past associates and begins to track them down. One of them happens to be Grant, and before you know it, his role in the Weather Underground comes to light, and he goes on the run in attempt to clear his name as the official story surrounding the bank robbery is far from the truth.
While the film never reaches the heights of "North by Northwest" or "The Fugitive," probably the two best "man-on-the-run" thrillers, it does prove to be an effective and engaging drama that's concerned far less with action and more with driving home the fact that there's no outrunning your past.
If there's a fault in the movie, it's that it bites off more than it can chew as it tries to develop and follow three story lines.
As Shepard digs deeper into these radicals' pasts and Grant finds them, seeking help, FBI Agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) is on his trail, always one step behind. This latter subplot is never fleshed as it should be, and the characters in it — including Anna Kendrick as a junior agent — are never adequately developed. While this story strand is a necessity, the film lags noticeably whenever we shift to it.
Obviously, Redford is more interested in the interaction between the characters whose pasts refuse to die, and as Grant encounters his former partners in social unrest, the film comes alive. That the director casts these roles with exceptional veteran actors only increases the viewer's interest as the anticipation of dramatic fireworks is realized more times than not.
With Chris Cooper as Grant's brother, Nick Nolte and Richard Jenkins as old friends and rivals and Julie Christie as his lost love, you can't help but be engaged.
Throw in Stanley Tucci as Shepard's editor, Brendan Gleeson as a retired cop with a past and newcomer Brit Marling as a young woman whose life gets turned upside down, and you have one of the strongest acting ensembles in recent memory. It all pays off handsomely as these pros have learned the power of subtlety and know that a quiet approach often carries the most dramatic weight.
While the inevitable reckoning of sins from the past is the theme of the film, the most pointed criticism Redford levels is at today's generation. At one point, Grant asks Shepard why he isn't more involved in issues of the day. He fails to get a satisfactory response as the disconnect between activism and indifference has become too great for many of today's youth to span.
This is an echo from "Lions for Lambs," which ends with the line "What are you going to do?" asked by a college professor to one of his students facing a moral dilemma over the War on Terror.
While it is commendable that Redford's sense of activism remains, based on the response to "Lions" and this film at the box office, it's obvious that he's preaching to an empty house.
'The Company You Keep' (3-1/2 stars out of 4)
Cast: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliot, Stephen Root and Brit Marling.
Directed by Robert Redford; produced by Nicolas Chartier, Bill Holderman and Redford; screenplay by Lem Dobbs, based on the novel by Neil Gordon.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. 121 minutes. Rated R (language) At the Art Theater.