The Company You Keep has a startlingly star-studded cast and I was surprised to see that most of them were in small, thankless roles. People like Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper and Stanley Tucci have a couple, three scenes at most and aren't given much of anything to sink their teeth into. What I think this suggests is an immense respect for Robert Redford - there are very few directors who could assemble actors of that caliber for roles that probably anyone could play. And that respect is merited - with Company, Redford proves once again that he is an exceptionally talented director who deserves to be taken more seriously than he is.
It begins with the abrupt arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), an American terrorist who had been living in hiding for decades since she was connected to a robbery that resulted in the murder of a security guard. Her arrest sparks renewed interest in the case and as a reporter (Shia LaBeouf) starts to dig deeper, a lawyer and newly single father (Robert Redford) realizes he is about to be uncovered and flees, leaving his daughter to stay with his younger brother (Chris Cooper) while he searches for an unknown something.
The foundation of Company is a clever, taut screenplay reminiscent of classic 70's American thrillers. It shocks the audience with reveal after reveal, always bringing up more questions and arousing more suspicions, but does so without a hint of self-importance and gracefully avoids inflated tension. Redford's graceful direction brings the electric writing to life and creates a suitably foreboding atmosphere - it's gritty, but not too dark; fast-paced, but not so much that it sacrifices plot or character; emotional, but not saccharine. For such an outlandish plot, Redford makes it feel as real as it possibly could. Too many modern thrillers like this try to make every beat into a high emotion scene, or build around the twist so it's as dramatic as possibly. Company avoids that - there is a refreshing lack of forced grandeur, and in its wake we get a surprisingly intimate film filled with truly fascinating characters and provocative moral questions that the screenplay doesn't answer for us.
The cast, as expected, are uniformly excellent. If there is a weak link it's Shia LeBeouf, whose real-life smug vanity suits the character but can only carry him so far when he's up against acting titans. He seems amateurish in his one-on-one scenes with Redford and Sarandon even though neither of them give especially domineering performances. Redford is an appropriately sympathetic lead but the supporting actors steal the movie - Susan Sarandon sets the bar very high right from the off. In her two or three short scenes, she reveals everything about her secretive, stony character; her microexpressions tell all. Cooper, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott and Richard Jenkins light up their segments with their presences alone, while Brendan Gleeson delivers a hauntingly conflicted portrayal.
Julie Christie, though, is the standout. If this has to be her last screen appearance, it's comforting to know that she went out with a loud bang, playing a character so unlike anything she's ever done before. Her Mimi is ferocious and spirited, but her steely conviction can't quite mask the naive little girl who never really grew up hiding underneath. She communicates a world of internal conflict with a simple raise of her eyebrows, a pang of regret merely by letting her mouth fall open; she's a master of her craft, fully realizing her character in maybe 15 minutes of screen time where most of her lines hit the same note.
If there's one problem with the movie, it's that it's too short. A significant plot point towards the end isn't given the time and attention it deserves, considering its weight and implications. It felt like a wasted opportunity for an amazing, thematically fathoms-deep ending. However, the ending as it is is satisfying and well-done nonetheless, and cleanly wraps up an expertly crafted breath of fresh air for the genre. If only it had come out 35 years ago where it would have been right at home and probably would have garnered a better reception.