Monday, November 12, 2007

An Art-full Western

Like any great Western, The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik’s second feature, is bucolic and terse. The landscape of the film, as in the great John Ford Westerns, defines the tone, pace, and visual design of film. Longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer and former David Lynch cinematographer, Roger Deakins (who seems to be on a roll this year) allows his camera to flow into and out of the empty spaces and barren plains of Assassination’s dreary, sometimes frostbitten environment. Shots like that of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) standing in an expansive wheat field, lightly touching the tips of the stalks with coarsened fingers are given an Antonioni-like existential resonance in their juxtaposition of a character against dwarfing, detached surroundings. In fact, the film seems to strive for the creation of a Western done by Antonioni, utilizing his manifesto that moments of boredom, ennui, and characters staring off into space are equally as valid and essential to depicting real life as action and snappy dialogue, which Assassination also contains, particularly in the incredibly tense and awkwardly emotive scenes between Jesse and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck).

As many have noted, Affleck absolutely steals the show. His toothpick-in-the-wind confidence combined with unusual line delivery and speaking rhythm can illicit thoughts like, “Damn, this guy can’t act.” At this point, Affleck has been effective. The entire beautiful complexity of Bob Ford is that he is an actor, although not professionally until the film’s finale. Ford is always presenting an image to please Jesse, his
idol, about whom he collects dime novels and newspaper clippings, like a teenage girl with a collection of Justin Timberlake magazine covers. He tries to seem intelligent, respectful and, most of all, useful, during the opening scenes in which he has just joined the James gang and is attempting to get on Frank’s (Sam Shepard) and Jesse’s good sides. Frank, the adept and cynical older James brother rejects Bob, sensing his insincerity and falseness. Jesse, however, the loose canon wild cat, allows Bob to come along and sparks up a sort of rapport with him. The incredibly insecure Bob tries to please Jesse, until Jesse rejects him by telling him to go home. Once home, Bob’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) and some of his outlaw friends tease Bob about his celebrity obsession with Jesse James, driving Bob, in collusion with Jesse’s rejection, to loathe Jesse. Bob then attempts to detach himself from Jesse, exuding his hate in wonderfully subtle moments with so many swirling emotions (not to mention homosexual longing) compacted into so few words.

Jesse experiences a sort of psychological breakdown when he begins learning of various plans constructed by his fellow gang members to have him killed and falls into a vicious cycle of violence and paranoia. Following his Frank’s decision to go straight and dissolve the gang after an unsuccessful train robbery, Jesse experiences incredible loneliness and a lack of identity that is further complicated by Bob Ford’s fervently erroneous conception of Jesse’s identity. Jesse seems to feed off of Bob’s worship, accessing a zeitgeist-like nostalgia for the fame and success he feels slipping away. The re-intersection of Bob and Jesse after a lengthy separation throughout the middle of the film, occurs when Jesse comes to visit the Ford family and takes Bob’s brother, Charley, with him for a fictional robbery that is planned multiple times but never actually played out, an absurd situation ringing harmoniously with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. During their scenes together, Jesse questions Charley about his opinions on suicide, intimating that Jesse’s depression and existential listlessness are reaching dangerous levels.

During Jesse’s excursion with Charley, Bob decides to become an informer to the state and agrees to trap Jesse by meeting up with him and Charley. Eventually, Bob does join up with them and they retreat to Jesse’s home, where he goes by a different name and lovingly cares for his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and his two small children. A tense waiting game of paranoia, insanity, and the hovering scent of murder spans the Ford brothers’ stay at the James home, which includes some of the most incredible scenes in any film this year. This results in Bob’s murdering of Jesse in a way that almost seems as if Jesse desires it, his suicidal tendencies coming forth. The assassination’s grace and beauty are indescribable and they achieve an almost Tarkovsky-like transcendent quality. Up to this point, the film is actually very reminiscent of Tarkovsky, particularly his pacing and his “sculpting in time” philosophy.

However, following Jesse’s death and the hoopla surrounding it, the film looses its steadiness and falls into standard biopic mode, jumping 20 years in 20 minutes and breaking with the leisurely, almost meditative pace and tone carried throughout the first two hours of the film. This incredibly jarring inconsistency is perhaps the only major problem in the film. During this final portion of the film, Bob Ford’s downward spiral is tracked, including his foray into acting, where, along with his brother, he recreates the assassination thousands of times. Bob fully realizes his arch that began in his introductory scenes, becoming the actor he trained himself to be under the oppression of Jesse’s deified celebrity status. Bob’s position as an actor is perhaps his ultimate betrayal in that he eliminates the reality of Jesse and perpetuates a new legend, just as false as the old one that haunted Jesse in his final months. This meta-critical aspect of the film deepens the resonance of Affleck’s stellar acting, as well as Pitt’s better-than-satisfactory performance, calling attention to the film’s own existence as a dramatic depiction and a perpetuation of legends and myths. This is perhaps the most mature and well-developed aspect of the film, apart from Deakins’ masterful cinematography. It also calls to mind Brian Henderson’s fantastic analysis of John Ford’s The Searchers and makes an excellent comment about the nature of the Western genre as mythical.

Although Assassination lacks the cohesive pace that would make it a great film, it does have very interesting things to say and does so in a visually appealing, creative way, which makes it a very good film. If for nothing more than the brilliant visuals and sumptuous melancholy, this film is certainly worth a watch. However, the eerie transcendental nature of the assassination scene, the meta-critical commentary found within the film’s themes, and the brilliance of Casey Affleck’s acting demand that it be given an intellectual, critical poring over, preferably in a large theater, where the film’s austere grandiosity can become sufficiently enveloping. It’s a film made for the big screen and I imagine its grandeur will be lost in translation to most television sets.

by Brandon Colvin


w. said...

I almost got into a shouting match with someone last night that "Jesse James" is not too "Days of Heaven" for its own good. Who would have thought a Brad Pitt "western" would be such a controversial film?

p.s., You have been linked because you managed to use the word "bucolic" in a blog entry.

p.s.s., I thought "Michael Clayton" had some Antonioni touches.

Neil Fulwood said...

I felt the jarring jump-20-years-in-20-minutes pacing of the final act works well. The almost dreamy, extended pacing of the first two hours suggests that Fords knows full well that he's living within a period of history in the making.

The compression of the rest of his life into the last half hour demonstrates the purposelessness of that life, its wasted degeneracy, and the fact that Jesse James's death and memory are casting a shadow Ford will never emerge from.

Aesthetically, it's worth mentioning that Ford's assassination incorporates some of the most well thought-out and unobstrusive use of freeze-frames I've ever seen.

Dean Treadway said...

What a wonderful review, for 2007's best movie, IMO. I disagree, however, with the notion that the last 20 minutes becomes standard bio-pic material. I think that this change in the film's feel is totally by design, because I think it reflects the lifeless quality of existence that Bob Ford enjoyed and endured after Jesse's death. He had, after all, killed the inspiration of his own life, and thus had to cobble together an identity of his own quite improvisationally. I think the movie derserves at least an A-, if one believes in such ratings. I also feel that, though you gave Pitt, Dominick, Affleck and Roger Deakins their utter due as the movie's chief artisans, you failed to mention two more essential contibutors to the film's fantastic success: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis as the authors of its time-ticking, melancholy score.

James Hansen said...

Thanks for the comment, Dean. I'll let Brandon respond to why he said/thought what he thought and the grading (ugh...grades), but I'll chime in by saying that I'm with you on this one. What makes the ending work is the lifelesness you mention, and the way the scenes are put together is certainly not like a traditional bio, I don't think. The scenes complete showing the lead up and affects of the assassination. It took so much time to show everything else. Why would it suddenly change that at the end?

For the record, "Assassination" ended up at #9 on Brandons and #5 on my top 10 list for 07. Don't know what that says about the grade issue, exactly, but it's worth mentioning.

Thanks again! Always glad to know people are visiting some of these older posts!

Brandon Colvin said...

My conclusion is that I REALLY need to see this film again before I'm able to respond to Dean's comment. I've thought about the closing section repeatedly since seeing the film, and, without having seen it again, I think my problem was not so much the insufficiency of the finale as it was that I think ending earlier would've been a superlative decision. The end is pretty solid, just not what I felt was exactly right - which would've been to conclude the film just after Jesse's death, preserving the tone that I loved so much.

This was actually the first film review I ever wrote in my life. Haha. The rating is a little too harsh. The film has certain gone up in my rankings since seeing it. I would even suggest that it moved up on my Top 10 list of 2007. If I were to reconstruct that list right now, it would probably look like this:

1. Lake of Fire
2. Brand Upon the Brain!
3. Zodiac
4. The Assassination of JJ . . .
5. Margot at the Wedding
6. There Will Be Blood
7. No Country For Old Men
8. Ratatouille
9. Superbad
10. The Wind That Shakes the Barley