Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Music: Nick Cave/Warren Ellis
Director:Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik (screenplay), Ron Hansen (novel)
Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Release Date:30 November 2007 (UK)

It's hard to imagine this film being much of a success, despite starring Brad Pitt. It's a long-haul: slow-moving, intensely melancholic and sombre, dealing in grey-paletted landscapes and skyscapes, pauses, silences, things unsaid as much as things said. Still, it's been critically successful, and it address questions pertinent to today's society: Fame. Hero worship. The desire to be someone else, as an escape from the drudgery of your own life ("do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"). The realisation that that someone else is "just a man," just like you, and that he perhaps struggles with the same sense of drudgery and hopelessness, as you do.

John Hillcoat’s fine Australian western, 'The Proposition' is a film to which I compared this, if only because it features a similarly melancholic soundtrack by the same two men, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Cave, by the way, has a cameo near the end of the film, and, what with his weatherbeaten face and large moustache, he looks like he belongs nowhere else if not in a western saloon). Partly because of this music, the mood is similar - fatalistic, sad. Yet Hillcoat’s film allows a greater sense of engagement with its characters, and therefore provides a basis for the sadness, which is not really the case here, as I shall go on to explain. The two films have different themes as well: 'Proposition' dealt with the coming of the frontier, of civilisation; it dealt with man's relation to the land, the primal versus the civilised, the clash of cultures, the role of family, the role of violence, and the execution of law and order. Here, even though the setting is the actual American west, rather than Australia, less traditionally 'western' concerns predominate: as outlined at the end of the previous paragraph, the emphasis is instead on fame, hero worship, the desire to be someone else.

Notably, the film conveys a sense of the drudgery and sheer hardship of life in the west that many films miss, and, unlike most other westerns (with the exception of 'True Grit'), the dialogue often feels authentic – slightly grandiose, perhaps stilted to our ears – almost Elizabethan; slow, deliberate, unusual, and just right. In addition, the carefully crafted sound design adds a vital, if almost imperceptible extra dimension to practically every scene – whether through the sound of a child singing heard through a window, or a half-open door; whether through wind in the grass, chatter in a saloon, or the rumble of an approaching train felt, as much as heard, through an ear pressed to the rails.

Such attention to sonic detail complements the strong visual sense of the film: everything in the frame is there for a purpose, every frame is composed in an almost painterly fashion. One of the most striking examples is a stunning shot of Jesse’s silhouetted figure disappearing into a cloud of smoke as a train approaches, then re-appearing seconds later in another place. Also striking are the ‘interludes’ that punctuate the main action, in which spoken narration (passages from the novel on which the film is based) is overlaid onto moody shots of clouds moving across the sky, glimpses of fields and snow through windows, sunlight falling on an empty interior, all shot through a strange, hazy, dream-like lens. I was reminded of a Russian drama I’d seen a few days before - 'The Return', in which the landscape becomes almost a character, or at least a driving force which partially dictates why the characters behave how they do and what courses of action they take.

Tying in with this, Roger Ebert comments on the bleak emptiness of the landscape (like McCabe and Mrs Miller, it was shot in Canada - all huge grey skies, desolate waving wheat-fields, snow, ice, and mud), and how, because of this, because "the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends." Whether or not Jesse James wants to become a legend (and the film implies that he does not, that he is, at the very least, ambivalent towards his status), his actions do seem to indicate some attempt to go beyond the ordinary, to carve a place for himself, if only for some obscure, inner sense of satisfaction, completion.

I say this partly because no explanation is sought, or offered, by anyone in the film, for the gang's actions. This is simply what they do - perhaps to avoid the drudgery of working in a grocery store, like Bob, or making shoes, as Frank suggests he will do; perhaps for the money, to give themselves a chance of a fuller life. Perhaps simply because, in this environment, doing anything feels almost like a random act. The film is detached from the characters, and the characters are detached from themselves. At one point, Jesse speaks about watching himself from outside: "I look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong." The state governor comments that, while some say Jesse's crimes are revenge on Republicans and people who wronged his family, his victims didn't seem to be chosen on account of their political persuasion. In other words, he's no political rebel. He's just an outlaw, who does what he does - who knows why? That's not important to the governor. He wants the man captured, not to understand his motivation. The film should go beyond his concerns though, and examine the latter..shouldn't it? Doesn't it?

I'm not convinced that it does, and more context of the sort hinted at in the governor's two or three lines might have helped. For all the film's desire for historical accuracy in detail, in the bigger picture it's rather sketchy. I'll return to these criticisms later.

But, still, it's a film easy to admire, for several reasons: the use of space, and silence, building tension in long, drawn-out dinner-table conversations. The inexorable build toward death: like Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West', a dance of death - or a slow, deliberately paced walk towards it. It feels like something winding down: everyone is aware of impending confrontation, but unable to escape from it. People face their deaths with stoicism, as if this is what fate has dictated for them, as if it is their role to play: the gang member Pitt shoots in the back for real, or imagined betrayal; James himself, who glimpses his assassin in a mirror but makes no attempt to dodge the bullet's path.

It will probably be admired most for its performances: Casey Affleck's insinuating, awkward hero-worshipper, at once understandable and pitiable - bullied, insecure, unloved - and at once somewhat contemptible, annoying and disturbing. Pitt's James – a performance very different in tone from other western movie outlaws: Kris Kristofferson, the youthful idealist of Peckinpah's 'Pat Garrett'; Robert Wagner, the James Dean-esque teenage rebel of 'The True Story of Jesse James'; Tyronne Power, the blue-eyed Robin Hood of the 1939 James film; Paul Newman, the mixed-up psycho teenager of 'The Left-Handed Gun'; Emilio Estevez, the madman in 'Young Guns'; or, most recently, Danny Huston's murdering outlaw in 'The Proposition', dangerous as a wolf and with something profoundly melancholic about him, as if he senses some underling sadness, or madness, in the universe, as he sits on a rocky outcrop, staring directly into the blazing Australian sun as it sets; or Russell Crowe's Ben Wade in the '3:10 to Yuma' remake - again, utterly ruthless and with some moral element perverted, or simply missing, yet capable of being charming, and with a penetrating intelligence that elevates him above the rest of his gang.
By contras, Pitt plays his outlaw as aloof, detached: melancholy, for no clear reason, at one point he hints at his desire for death, for suicide. "Once you've looked over the other side, you'll never want to go back into your body," he says, before, for no apparent reason, shooting holes through the ice on which he stands: an action which, in a cinema and a genre where it sometimes feels as if every action has to have a motivation, strikes one as a strangely existential act.

Ultimately however, despite these positive aspects, the movie is hard to like, much less love; it’s characterised by the same aloofness I've just discussed in its protagonist. Jesse's occasional mentions of the soul raise the possibility of a deeper philosophical strain (which might be somewhat out of place, given the dour 'factual', 'realistic' nature of the film, such as the vomit that smears Bob Ford's suit when he falls over on a saloon floor), but it remains merely a suggestion, adding to a vague impression of some sort of inexplicable sadness. Of course, James is not a simple human being: psychotic killer and family man, moody and introspective one moment, jocular and almost frivolous the next. We can’t expect everything about him to be explained – but sometimes open-endedness can be taken too far, and I can’t help feeling that there's a lack of insight into his character, and the other characters in the film. They seem to remain ciphers who simply exist, rather than fully fledged human beings who act. James' family in particular is ignored by the script, except for occasional shots to show that he has one at all. The film observes dislikeable characters doing dislikable things; the audience is left to judge, but are not given that much to base their judgments on, despite the slow pace. The film's attitude to its legendary titular character is unclear: do we admire him? He's a cold-blooded murderer - surely just as much of a coward as Bob Ford. Or is he let off the hook because he's Brad Pitt, because he's brooding and handsome and has a family? Ultimately, ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is indifferent - neither tragic nor exciting, just generally glum, it gives the impression of saying more than it actually does. It had the potential to be more than it is, and is thus an interesting, perhaps necessary, but flawed movie.

LINKS: The Proposition (2005) -
The Return (2004) -
McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) -
Roger Ebert review of 'The Assassination of Jesse James'

1 comment:

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