The Company You Keep
I’m all for a good ol’ liberal movie, and this film, starring Robert Redford, Susan Sarandon, Richard Jenkins, and a host of other stars, boasts marquee lefty credentials to burn. What it lacks is any sense of drive as burning as that presumably possessed by its central characters.
Things start off glumly, with Sarandon’s character, Sharon Solarz, being nabbed at a gas station by the FBI. Solarz has been on the run for over three decades; it turns out that she used to be with the Weather Underground, a violent revolutionary group responsible for a string of terrorist acts in the early 1970s. One of the group’s criminal acts was a bank robbery in which a security guard was shot dead. It’s for her role in that robbery, and her status as an accessory to murder, that Solarz is wanted.
Redford plays a lawyer named Jim Grant who is approached by a farmer, Billy Cusimano (Stephen Root), a friend of Solarz who wants to enlist Grant’s help in defending her. Solarz, Cusimano says, was preparing to turn herself in; the feds swooped in to grab the glory of the arrest. Grant, a single parent with a young daughter, has enough to worry about already and he turns Cusimano down.
But that brief contact draws the attention of a local newspaper reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf). The young reporter’s persistence and dogged attention to detail leads to Grant’s unmasking as Nick Sloan, another Weather Underground fugitive long sought in connection with the robbery gone awry.
Pursued by the feds (whose point man on the case, Agent Cornelius [Terrence Howard], is just as dogged as Shepard, only without the people skills), Grant manages to stow his daughter in the custody of his long-estranged brother Daniel (Chris Cooper) and then trace a zigzagging path, leading the authorities, and the reporter, on a merry chase toward -- what?
Shepard concludes that it’s toward exoneration. While the feds are busy thinking with their guns, Shepard digs into old newspaper archives and ambushes people connected to the long-ago case. In the course of his investigation, Shepard becomes convinced of Grant’s innocence. But how does Grant intend to prove it? And why has be been living under an assumed identity for all this time?
The answers to such questions involve a tormented series of leaps in narrative logic, along with a constellation of more stars: Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Ana Kendrick, Stanley Tucci, and Sam Elliott all show up, some as law enforcement, some as news reporters, some as old-school radicals who have adapted with the times.
Redford directs, giving the film a high level of gloss and glide. But there’s an essential energy missing, somehow, and the story’s efforts to bolster the level of interest by introducing a dead-end subplot that finds Shepard paying court to Rebecca (Brit Marling), a law student with indirect connections to the case, feel like filler. (The upside is that Marling has a role; she brings some charge to the script’s faltering plot points, which become increasingly mechanical.)
By the time Grant and an old acquaintance with the means to clear his name finally meet and trade barbs (blunted by ideology, but barbs nonetheless), the movie feels cumbersome and lifeless. The best parts come early, when Sarandon brings some real moral ambiguity to the film. Asked by Shepard in a jailhouse interview whether she’d engage in the same sort of outlaw behavior now as then, Sarandon’s character nods with slow deliberation. "If I didn’t have kids, and two old parents that I love, yes I would," she responds -- not with the fire of a zealot, but with the slow-burning heat of a true believer. For a moment or two, you understand how good people could have gone so wrong, and you almost care about this long-dormant hippie-era version of the culture wars... almost.