by Anthony King
I remember being at my Grandma Jo's one Friday night for one of our movie nights. I was four years old, and I couldn't tell you the first movie we watched, but I'll never forget thinking during the second movie, “My god. This is such an old person movie.” The movie? Cocoon. And, still having never seen it, I assume it's just as much an “old person movie” now as it was in 1986. But here I am, writing about The Grey Fox, a story about an aging outlaw that doesn't know what to do in his twilight years. And I loved it. Turn on Diagnosis Murder, hand me that box of epsom salt, and cue up Cocoon to watch after our 4pm supper.
The film opens with a prologue giving a brief history of the real-life Bill Miner. When we enter the film proper, Miner, small and gray, enters the sunlit courtyard of San Quentin State Prison, and smiles his soul-warming smile, and walks out a free man after 33 years. A brief stint in Portland with his sister and her husband as an oyster picker is followed by Miner's realization that there's only one thing he's good at, and one thing he wants to do. His brother-in-law says to him, “Gettin' a little old to be choosy, ain't ya?” referring to Miner's discontent at his potential career opportunities. “I got ambitions that just won't quit,” Miner says, and it's at that moment that I saw how aligned I was with Bill Miner, Gentleman Bandit. Later, hugging his sister goodbye, Miner says, “Seems like I missed out on all the good opportunities.” Your heart breaks for this man entering the final years of his life. He knows, and we know, that time is short and the breaks are slim. When his first time robbing a train is botched, our hearts break. When The Pinkertons begin their hunt for Miner, our hearts break. When the inevitable happens at the end, our hearts breaks. (Not to spoil anything, but there is a happy ending. Worry not.)
Being set in Hallmark movie country, the setting is breathtaking. No other part of the world looks and feels like the Pacific Northwest on film. We're treated to shots of lush greenscapes, dense fog that seems like it will seep out of your screen at any minute, and gorgeous wide shots at the foothills of the Cascades where giant steam engines wind their way around the the mountains. The score by Michael Conway Baker is a composite of traditional Irish folk music and bluegrass of the mountains, transporting us to these small communities where people are just trying to survive. Periodic title cards help move the story along but, unlike almost every movie I've ever seen, I could have lived in The Grey Fox for another hour. At just over 90 minutes, you're sad to say goodbye to Bill Miner because you've come to love him.