Movie Review: “The Company You Keep”

 

It’s unfortunate to see a potentially great movie derailed by its own myriad twists and turns. But that’s exactly what happens with “The Company You Keep”: an intriguing film, but not necessarily a stunning one. Well-acted by a phenomenal cast and with gorgeous, subdued cinematography, the film — starring and directed by Robert Redford — nevertheless cripples itself with stylistic decisions that keep it from succeeding emotionally. 

Shot with a dull palette, overcast New York and the Great Lakes, with no clear good guys or bad guys, “The Company You Keep” revolves around the manhunt for suspected terrorist and single father Nick Sloan (Robert Redford). Yes, at its most basic level, it is a movie that follows a fairly straightforward cross-country chase. But throw into the mix small-city reporter Ben Shepard’s (Shia LaBeouf) ceaseless investigations of the wanted man, and the film becomes an entirely different beast. The Shepard character is slightly more antagonist than protagonist: He drives the conflict by exposing Sloan’s former terrorist connections, and he continues to relentlessly pursue the truth through the film, no matter the collateral damage he causes in the process.

As Shepard delves deeper into the history of Nick Sloan and his compatriots, the infamous “Weather Underground” leftist terrorist group, we begin to realize that “The Company You Keep” asks a lot of questions (Is Shepard is doing the right thing? Is terrorism ever really justified? Is Nick Sloan innocent? Is true journalism dead?), but whether these questions are answered is never really clear.

Before the end of the film, most of the characters have made large, irreversible decisions about where they stand and what they value — and some of the choices made may be surprising. More importantly, all the choices are believable; every performance shines from the star-studded cast. From the glaring dignity of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) and the unapologetic demagoguery of Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) to the aggressive, relentless detective work of Terrence Howard’s Agent Cornelius, everyone is in top form in this film.

The film is technically beautiful. Lots of close, sometimes even claustrophobic shots are interrupted by rare views emphasizing the still, untouched natural beauty of the northeastern United States. The music is a keening blend of shrill and soothing electronic sounds that sneaks in the quieter moments of the film and adds an icy veneer.

But when it’s all over, it’s not clear if the audience has gained or lost anything emotionally. The whole film operates from a distance: These characters are all strangers, and they remain strangers to the end. We don’t agree with their choices or their reasons, and they have too many secrets left unexposed for us to ever really get to know them. They’re not good guys, and some of them are much closer to bad. So when the plot is resolved, the audience is left feeling exhausted — and maybe even relieved — but not in an emotionally different place. This distance that the characters have from the audience equals an emotional impact that is as subdued as the rest of the film. In the end, the cold, distant tone undermines the film’s entire denouement and conclusion, robbing it of any satisfactory resolution. Go see the “The Company You Keep” if you want to see something incredibly interesting, technically successful and with great performances, but ultimately unsatisfying. (C-)

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