Our Souls at Night is a lovely, gentle, sweet, low-key – and unfortunately rather dull – film about two octogenarians living in a small Colorado town who find solace in each other’s company. It’s wonderful to see Robert Redford and Jane Fonda together again after so many decades, but I can’t help but wish they’d been given a better script to work their magic for what seems likely to be their last joint project. Bruce Dern makes a few brief, memorable appearances, adding a little spice and grit to the narrative, but in a film whose principal running gag is the pleasures of chatting about the weather, he couldn’t appear often enough.
It occurs to me that the source of the problem lies not at all in the subject matter – i.e., growing old – but in the title itself and the ambience it suggests. These two people, we feel sure, will indeed be going gentle into that good night, as do their friends and acquaintances who, sadly, grow sick and die all around them, mostly in their sleep. Jane Fonda’s character, Abbie, has a seven-year-old grandson, who adds some quiet, well-behaved cuteness to the narrative but, unfortunately, not enough orneriness to save the day. What we need, I’m thinking, is a little bit of rage to make this story more compelling.
“It’s wonderful to see Redford and Fonda together again after so many decades, but I can’t help but wish they’d been given a better script to work their magic.”
Don’t get me wrong – there are real pleasures to be had in this world. Fonda and Redford look swell and, happily, remain complete naturals in front of the camera. The gorgeous shots of the small town they live in could be the small Illinois town I grew up in myself: nature, nostalgia, red barns, and regular people combine to create familiar eye-candy with a special charm all its own. As my mind wandered, though, I couldn’t help but think of other films about old age far more dynamic, which rank among my favorite movies of all time: Gran Torino and Amour – two very different kinds of movies – are just a couple of titles among many that make old age so interesting – so gloriously bittersweet – that you actually, enviously, wish you were there.
Clint Eastwood, of course – director and star of Gran Torino – can make life look like an adventure with just a well-timed sneer, and Michael Haneke’s always unflinching gaze on life’s horrors makes an old man’s love for his dementia-ridden wife a thing of magnificent, icy beauty. Both of these movies end in violence – less realistic, we might say, than the gradual, muted diminishment of Our Souls at Night – but perhaps more indicative of a greater universal Truth. At any rate, certainly more riveting.
And let’s not forget No Country for Old Men – a movie not about old age in the main, but one in which we fall passionately in love with Tommie Lee Jones’ lawman – his steady courage, his crusty ruminations about dreams of his father sending chills down one’s spine. With all the wonderful movies about growing old that Our Souls at Night suggests, I have a feeling I’m going to be doing some streaming soon.
Our Souls at Night, released by Netflix, is based on the final novel of the same title by Alan Kent Haruf, finished just before his death in 2014 at the age of 71. Thus, many circumstances close to many people’s hearts are brought together in the charming and heartfelt narrative that is this movie. So it’s a film worth watching for more reasons than one. I merely mourn for the Fonda-Redford swan song that could have had me sitting on the edge of my seat.