The Company You Keep is directed by Robert Redford (Quiz Show) and adapted by Lem Dobbs (The Limey) from the novel by Neil Gordon. Ben Shepard (Shia Labeouf), an upstart Albany reporter smells a big case following the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Sarandon), a member of Weather Underground, a radical left organization involved in the shooting death of a bank security guard in the 70’s. His probing leads him to a single-parent lawyer, Jim Grant (Robert Redford), who refuses to counsel the case and seems averse to questioning and speculation about his relationship to Solarz. When it becomes clear that Grant is not who he claims, and believed to be another long-time fugitive, the FBI, with Shepard in tow, pursue the resourceful Grant across the country as he seeks out accomplices to help him clear his name. The humanist founder of the Sundance Film Festival and the motor-mouth kid from the Transformers films are at the core of this film. LaBeaouf is impressive here, talking at one hundred miles an hour and often scrounging for a pad and pen with a phone to his ear. He’s persistent and unpredictable, playing above his weight, but his genuine enthusiasm in the case and the individuals involved manages to convince his sources to cooperate. Redford proves he is still a presence in front of the camera, despite his recent lack of inventiveness as a director (as demonstrated by 2011’s The Conspirator).
The supporting roles are portrayed by a plethora of veteran actors. In addition to Sarandon, Julie Christie, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Nick Nolte, Sam Elliott, Stephen Root and Chris Cooper appear as old associates or Grant’s contacts, while Shepard gains allies in Brit Marling, Anna Kendrick and Terrence Howard. They lend their individual charm to bit roles that don’t much test their skills, but having a roster of such experience means there is no weak work here, except perhaps the miscast Kendrick.
Overall, The Company You Keep is a pretty by-the-numbers political thriller with a style that feels plucked from another era, considering the period of political activism that seeps into the 21st Century context. The story gathers complexity though the muddy relationships become increasingly difficult to keep track of. The film’s two-hour runtime, incorporating unnecessary subplots to provide Ben with more breadcrumbs toward the answers, is excessive, while the film’s biggest sin for me is the lack of tension. The film’s somewhat drab direction didn’t give the film that cinematic edge.
One of the film’s most rousing themes involves the repercussions of unsourced speculative reporting, a misdemeanor Ben flirts with. Though he breaks a case with potential slander, suggesting that a lawyer passing on such a high profile case was suspicious, he could have replicated what occurred following the robbery, and his awareness of his conduct is a learning curve he takes throughout.
The second theme that worked its way into the story is the shielding of the younger generation from the ideals of their parents. In one of the finest scenes, Solarz asks Ben what he would be willing to risk for something he believed in. Ben’s adversary to violence displays his ignorance to the state of the 70s. Grant’s first priority is to make sure that his daughter has a guardian while he is on the run, while Marling’s character, an adopted child, learns the truth about her parents, their identity kept a secret to protect her and themselves. There is a melancholic dislocation of ideals as Grant reunites with his past associates to find that few of them have left ties to the past.
The Company You Keep, though likely to appeal to admirers of Redford, Christie and co, suffers from a plodding pace and inconsistency. What should be an engrossing on-the-run thriller tackling journalistic ethics, the fallout of anti-war radicalism and the impact of harboured secrets leaves little to provoke.
[rating=2] and a half
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.