The Company You Keep has high aspirations, including explorations of the similarities between activism and terrorism, the loyalties of old counterparts, and the bond between a father and a daughter. Robert Redford’s latest directorial effort touches on all of these, but in doing so, doesn’t develop any of them enough to leave a lasting impression.
That’s not to say The Company You Keep isn’t both entertaining and intriguing. We open to FBI agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard) and a slew of other officers converging on a local gas station to arrest Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon). Solarz’s suburban housewife lifestyle is a facade, as she’s a former member of an activist group called the Weather Underground who has been wanted by the FBI since the 1970s for her involvement in a bank robbery that resulted in a murder.
Reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) finds Solarz’s arrest peculiar. After 30 years of successfully lying low, why did she decide to casually use her credit card to buy gas and not put up a fight when apprehended? Shepard’s interest is piqued. The character of a budding, small-time reporter hungry for the bigger news scoop is hardly new (House of Cards’ Zoe Barnes is a recent example), but LaBeouf plays the part exceptionally well.
Shepard’s article on Solarz irks widowed father and established defense attorney Jim Grant (Redford), whom Shepard implicates in the story by questioning his decision not to serve as Solarz’s legal counsel. Some more ethically questionable digging on Shepard’s part leads him to discover that Grant isn’t who he says he is: he’s Nick Sloan, another Weather Underground member also wanted by the FBI for the same robbery-turned-murder that Solarz turned herself in for. Is Sloan, now a mild-mannered, loving father, guilty? It would initially appear so, but once he’s been made, his actions lead Shepard to start doubting.
Going any further would be revealing too much, so on that note I’ll hold back. I will say that for a movie that plays off suspense, the intrigue of The Company You Keep wears off with each new reveal. As such, the film suffers from “all bark, no bite” syndrome, in which the excellent first half of the film sets the audience up for a letdown in the third act.
Redford has never been a director to avoid a challenging premise, and The Company You Keep is of a piece with his last two films, The Conspirator and Lions for Lambs. From the onset it demands the audience’s attention and keeps you guessing, even if the revelations turn out to be not as interesting as what we had imagined.
The main problem with The Company You Keep is there’s too much going on at once, and that includes the cast. Redford employs a cavalcade of veteran acting buddies to serve as his fellow Weather Underground members — Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Christie and Sam Elliott among them. It’s the aging actor version of a Marvel summer blockbuster, except that the star-studded cast is actually counterproductive to the storyline. It’s easy to find yourself amused seeing all these actors in the same film instead of becoming invested in what their characters are saying or doing. It gets to the point that the company Redford is keeping is too sprawling for a film of two hours, leaving stars like Sarandon and Anna Kendrick (playing an FBI agent and Shepard’s ex-college fling) to disappear completely after just a few scenes.
The Company You Keep is an admirable and thought-provoking attempt by Redford, who among other things is using the Vietnam War to comment on what’s happening in our country today. But the film becomes overly self-involved and relies on reveals involving characters brought into the fray far too late to be essential to the story, turning what starts off as good Company into too much of a crowd.