The Company You Keep is a new political thriller from Robert Redford. I was initially drawn to the film solely because of Redford, but his performance is secondary to the great supporting cast that he has built around him. This isn’t to say that he is bad, and the opposite is quite true, even after all these years (the AARP is now reviewing his films). But just take a look at the cast list and you’ll be amazed: Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Terrance Howard, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliot, Britt Marling, Julie Christie, Anna Kendrick, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, and Stephen Root.
It’s some kind of feat just to fit all of those actors into a film while still maintaining a specific purpose. This isn’t one of those empty ensemble cast movies, like one of Sarandon’s other recent projects, The Big Wedding — which has an eight percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the last time that I checked — that banks on cheap laughs or the thrill of just trying to fill up a movie poster with recognizable names. Instead, Redford and writers Lem Dobbs (screenplay) and Neil Gordon (novel) ensure that The Company You Keep is thoughtful about its characters. It’s easy to dismiss a director’s aptitude when they surround themselves with well-known and well-respected actors, but Redford put the right people in place from the get-go so it all blends together seamlessly.
If you’ve read this far, you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned Shia LaBeouf, who is essentially as much the main character as Redford’s Jim Grant/Nick Sloan character. I’ve never been a huge fan of LaBeouf’s acting personally, but I have to admit that I was impressed with him here. To give you some perspective, I’ve always thought about him as a step above Tobey Maguire — even though that’s a different conversation — yet I have no complaints about him here. I understood from the beginning why Redford cast him and it works out perfectly. He is a major driving force of the film and it’s his best role to date.
The film’s plot centers on an anti-war group known as the Weather Underground or the Weathermen, who, among other things, got wrapped up in a bank robbery in the 1970s that resulted in the murder of a guard. One of the Weathermen died during the incident, but the other three have been on the run, changing identities ever since. Trouble is set in motion when Sharon Solarz (Sarandon) is arrested and the web of connections is slowly untangled. Leading the way is Ben Shepard (LaBeouf), an Albany Times city beat reporter determined to prove to everyone that he deserves more respect and notoriety. Shepard gets a tip from an FBI acquaintance (Kendrick) and starts asking the right questions to stay one step ahead of the FBI’s guru Agent Cornelius (Howard) who is in pursuit of the remaining Weather Underground members.
The film is fairly straightforward, but it does pose a few challenging questions for the viewer, which can be heard through the voices of the Weather Underground members. In a hypnotizing interview scene between Sarandon and LaBeouf, Solarz asks Shepard, “What are you willing to take a risk for?” The question is simple but the answer is not. As the story unfolds, the lines between right and wrong and violence and inaction are blurred and Shepard is left with a few crucial choices of his own in this regard. As Mimi Lurie (Christie), an Underground member, points out, “Sitting at home while the government commits genocide is violence.” Shepard is not an idle observer, and it’s his dedication to the pursuit of the truth that shapes the outcome of the story.
The Company You Keep doesn’t carry the weight of All the President’s Men with its insight into investigative journalism, exposure, and politics, but it’s worthy of more than its mixed reviews. If you like Redford, then you’ll enjoy it. If you dislike LaBeouf, give it a shot; you’ll be surprised.
The Company You Keep plays at the Art Theater Co-op through Thursday.