"The Company You Keep" should have been close to a can't-miss proposition, a socially-charged dramatic thriller with an established director in Robert Redford (2011's "The Conspirator
") and an ensemble cast that plays like a who's-who of the best Hollywood talent, past and present. The project is based on the 2003 novel by Neil Gordon, adapted for the screen by Lem Dobbs (2012's "Haywire
"), but all of it simply becomes too much of a good thing. Overstuffed with too many superfluous supporting characters and story tangents, the film attempts to fool the viewer into thinking the plot is more complicated than it is. Slowing down to an inert crawl in the second half just when it ought to be revving up, Redford loses his way in a maze of literary asides that he would have been wise to streamline for this film version. By the overly convenient topper, one is less likely to be satiated than to feel disappointment. Is that really all there is?
Unable to face her guilty conscience any longer, wife and mother Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in for the decades-old murder of an off-duty police officer during a bank robbery, a product of her rebellious activities with radical group The Weather Underground. The story catches the eye of young Albany Sun-Times
journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), who uses his contact at the FBI Field Office, college ex Diana (Anna Kendrick), to nab an interview with Sharon. Meanwhile, Ben's investigation leads him to small-town attorney Jim Grant (Robert Redford), a widower with a precocious 11-year-old daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho). Just as Ben puts the pieces together and fingers Jim as real name Nick Sloane, another of the Underground suspects, Jim skips town, leaving Isabel with his younger brother Daniel (Chris Cooper). His destination: to find fellow suspect Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie) in the hopes that she might turn herself in and clear his name for the sake of his daughter.
There is an error in the timeline of "The Company You Keep" so egregious that it leaves one wondering if anyone on the production was paying attention. Though the film is set in the present day (people use iPhones and reference Twitter), it is mentioned that the criminal act which the story revolves around occurred thirty years ago. The only problem? Said robbery and murder supposedly happened near the end of the Vietnam War, in 1973 and before the Weather Underground (a real-life radical left organization founded at the University of Michigan) dismantled. Forty
years ago. This embarrassing mathematical fail notwithstanding, "The Company You Keep" is full of long, drawn-out dialogue exchanges and fine actors popping up for a couple scenes apiece before disappearing altogether without fanfare. Moving at an elegiac pace that does not suit the urgency of a plot involving a man trying to outrun the law, director Robert Redford helms the material in a lower key than it deserves. As things begin to run in circles during the last half-hour, going nowhere particularly special, don't be surprised if the urge comes to exclaim, "Get on with it!"
The performances are one area where little to no fault can be given. Robert Redford lends plausibility and conviction to his Jim Grant, a late-in-life father who risks losing his daughter and the life he's built for them. Shia LeBeouf (2012's "Lawless
") acquits himself well despite an unfortunate haircut as journalist Ben Shepard, who can't help but sympathize a little with Sharon's point-of-view when his interview with her reveals that she still believes in The Weather Underground's anti-government causes. Susan Sarandon (2013's "Snitch
") is electrifying in her too-brief role as Sharon Solarz, her meeting with Ben the movie's emotional centerpiece. As Diana, who warns Ben that no matter what Sharon says, her actions are still that of a terrorist's, Anna Kendrick (2012's "End of Watch
") is such an intensely watchable presence that she is missed once she vanishes from the proceedings midway through. And as Rebecca, daughter of another potential Weather Underground suspect Henry Osborne (Brendan Gleeson), Brit Marling (2012's "Arbitrage
") exudes a rare worldly intelligence; it's not just that she sells her lines, but that there is clearly a mind at work behind everything she says. Her flirtatious scenes with LeBeouf are some of the strongest, perhaps because they are a welcome departure from the garbled political ins and outs at hand.
The castwhich also includes Julie Christie (2011's "Red Riding Hood
"), Nick Nolte (2013's "Gangster Squad
"), Richard Jenkins (2012's "The Cabin in the Woods
"), and Sam Elliott (2009's "Up in the Air
"), among many othersis far and away the highlight of "The Company You Keep." Instead of blessing each one with a powerfully written supporting role, however, the bulk of thespians are squandered, threatened to be swallowed up altogether by a script that is at once unwieldy and too slim and meandering to power through its 125-minute running time. Was Sharon and her cohorts right in fighting for their cause, even at the expense of a lost life? Redford acknowledges both sides of the debate, but doesn't explore either to their potentially provocative fullest. He also ends things on a too-neat note that sidesteps the reality of its precarious situation. The company isn't the problem in "The Company You Keep." Everything else is.