Shia LaBeouf has already quite effectively shrugged off his adolescent persona as a Disney kid (admittedly, though, he was always a bit of a weird one, he certainly wasn’t going to ever star in his own version of High School Musical) with a series of big blockbusters and big public bust-ups, but the actor still seems to be searching for an appropriate niche to serve his undeniable (though sometimes overshadowed) talents. Fortunately for everyone involved, LaBeouf hits his stride in Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep, a smart and serious slice of hard-boiled drama that’s long been absent from the local multiplex. LaBeouf stars as Ben Shepard, a go-getter cub reporter in upstate New York who stumbles upon the biggest story of his young career, one that unexpectedly pops up practically in his own backyard.
When Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) is captured by the FBI at a random gas station in New York state for a crime committed decades before, it kicks off a renewed interest in her case. A former member of the Weather Underground, Sharon and three other pals knocked over a bank back in their heyday, killing an innocent guard in the process. One of her cohorts was captured long ago, but two remain on the run, even decades later. If Sharon could hide out and live a seemingly normal life (nice husband, nice kids, nice house), who’s to say what happened to Nick Sloan and Mimi Lurie?
Working off a scant lead, just a name really, Ben begins unraveling the twisted tale of the robbery gone bad, the people who committed it, and the system that set them up for such a nightmare. At the center of it is local lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), a recent widower just trying to get his kid to school on time. Jim didn’t help Sharon before her arrest, but why would a small town lawyer like Jim Grant even get mentioned in the same breath as a criminal like Sharon Solarz? Well. You know. Probably. Jim’s real role in the film (and the crime) is obvious enough, but Redford’s film does include some unexpected turns and some big revelations, more than enough to recommend The Company You Keep to cinephiles looking for a chewy drama.
It’s no surprise that Redford managed to corral a stunning array of talents for the film – The Company You Keep is the type of production that’s populated almost exclusively with big stars and “hey, look, it’s that guy!” talents. Sarandon may start the film, and she may get one hell of a big scene, but the rest of the film is so packed with stars that it’s no wonder we see little of her after her and LaBeouf’s sole tête-à-tête. The rest of the film’s cast includes Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Richard Jenkins, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Brendan Gleeson, Brit Marling, Sam Elliot, Stephen Root, and more (seriously, somehow, still more). While most of the film’s stars are afforded precious little screen time, they all add to its punch and provide welcome relief when Redford gets bogged down with his own production. LaBeouf, of course, is doing the only kind of work he really should these days – head down, smart, quick.
The Company You Keep takes too long to really get to the meat of its story and settle into itself, however, with a meandering first act that wanders and wonders in equal measure. Redford surely means to convey mystery and intrigue with the slow burn, but his ploy wears thin and the audience is left wanting things to really kick up a notch long before they do. But Redford does ultimately push things into territory that closely resembles a thriller, far more than just a standard issue drama.
The last hour of The Company You Keep is tense and taunt, even as Redford attempts to pull us into an apparent “twist” that most audience members will see coming from a mile away. That twist isn’t the point of the film, not really, so it’s heartening when Redford partially abandons it to focus more on the full scope of morality and justice at the heart of the film. Better still is the film’s ending – a stickler that’s far more than the sum of its parts, a meditative experience that will likely leave audiences with very mixed feelings, in the best possible way.
The Upside: Stellar performances by a solid cast, the type of old school dramatic thriller we rarely get to see.
The Downside: An obvious twist dilutes the film’s inherent action, the first half frequently drags, could stand to be more tightly wound.
On the Side: The film is based on Neil Gordon’s novel of the same name – loosely based, in fact, as the source material is formatted as a series of emails from different people, all addressed to Nick’s youngest daughter Isabel, who is a minor character in the final film.