Certain films strive for real importance, fueling debates about important political and social issues, unafraid to take a controversial or unpopular stance. Robert Redford certainly thinks that his new film, The Company You Keep, is one such picture. He couldn’t be further off the mark. The Company You Keep is a staggeringly dull effort with such a flawed concept, idiotic writing and poor construction that if anyone other than Redford had tried to make it, they would’ve been laughed out of the studio.
We’ll start at the beginning. Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), an aging mother, is arrested at a gas station near Albany, New York, for her role in a series as a domestic terrorist with the radical Weather Underground group forty years earlier. Ben Shepard (Shia “I Only Do Serious Movies Now” LaBeouf), a local reporter with a bad haircut, digs further into the story and discovers that local attorney Jim Grant (Redford), had been contacted about potentially representing Solarz but turned her down. Sensing a potential connection between Solarz and Grant, Shepard digs deeper. He discovers that Grant is a former member of the Weather Underground himself, and living under an alias after being wanted for murder during a botched bank robbery.
Hungry for his big break, Shepard breaks the story and sends Grant on the run, while also attracting the attention of an FBI task force trying to finally bring closure to the Weathermen’s crimes. From there, it’s a series of secret meetings and near misses as Shepard tries to track down Grant, Grant tries to clear his name, and the FBI tries (poorly) to corral either one of them.
On paper, this is a decent enough formula. It sets up what should be a competent thriller while also opening up the floor for a serious discussion of domestic radicalism and its causes, explanation and meanings. But The Company You Keep accomplishes none of this. Grant’s run from the law is anything but gripping or inventive. If anything, he’s only able to escape the FBI’s clutches because the entire public around him seems to be gripped by a startling case of idiocy. This is a suspected domestic terrorist in a post-9/11 world; his face is pasted on every newspaper and television station across the country. And yet he’s able to board a train, visit a museum, and hang out in a college lecture hall without anyone noticing or recognizing him. I’m aware that most cinematic heroes are able to pull off some pretty unrealistic tricks to get out of dodge, but oversights of this magnitude seem more like insults to the audience’s intelligence than plot points.
The film also shies away from its own political implications and ideas. Every time the film seems ready to make a real statement, it backs off, explaining away the characters actions or providing convenient plot holes for them to fall through. Twists that are supposed to feel revelatory seem advertised miles in advance. Why make a political thriller if you’re going to suck all the politics out of it?
And sweet lord, what are all these actors doing on such a leaky vessel? Wandering in and out of the film is an absolutely stellar of supporting players, including Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliot, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Terrence Howard, Chris Cooper, Brit Marling and Nick Nolte. Many try their best to make some magic with their screen time – Jenkins in particular is a nice breath of air – but on the whole, their characters pop up with bad dialogue and motivations, and then are completely discarded or forgotten as the film clunks along.
And in the end…well, what? At least really bad movies make you feel something, even if it’s just anger and a burning need to argue for a refund. The Company You Keep isn’t bad in such an outright sense; rather it’s just a completely unnecessary, totally benign and un-involving work. When you’re aiming for political significance and importance, that’s a real dagger.
The Company You Keep has no UK or US release date set.
This article was first posted on September 15, 2012