The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, US, 2007)
New Zealand native Andrew Dominik’s first and to date, only feature film, Chopper was made seven years ago it has taken almost one whole decade for him to bring his second film to the screen and when one sees it, it is not the greatest of surprises to see why. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is two hours and forty minutes long, it is a western in which a gun is hardly fired, no stand off’s at dawn, nothing in particular to link it to the golden era of American Westerns of the 40s and 50s .
It is a very long, slow moving film heading in a direction that we are made aware of from the very start. The slow burn ebb that is this films pace carries us on this journey towards this inevitable collision course with the mournful spirit of a funeral procession.
The film is not without its faults. The narrative voiceover, while beautifully poetic in the films prologue and epilogue is entirely superfluous, most of the time pointing out information that either serves no great purpose to the picture overall or in some places provides us with nothing more than a description of what is happening on screen. Here is that issue that so many filmmakers come upon in adaptations of literar works. To have such an appreciation for their source materials language that they feel the need to shoehorn as much of it in as is possible to the detriment of their own artistic achievement within their own medium.
One could make the argument that such films who give in to such straightforward page to screen adaptations with lumps of voiceover brimming throughout are serving as little more than promotional material for the story from which they are adapted. No film can include all that is in a book and hence through their complete lack of vision such filmmakers irrevocably surrender themselves up as being artists of a lesser medium.
Yet I digress, this is a beautiful film with a magnificent artistic vision. Andrew Dominik has crafted a melancholy, ponderous film in line with the works of Terrence Malick. The sort of film scarcely seen in American cinema since the death of auteur cinema in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980.
Perhaps the foremost artist in contributing to this poetic atmosphere is cinematographer Roger Deakins, veteran of such beautifully scoped pictures as The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun and The Village. Deakins work on this film may not be quite the visual storyteller that his work on No Country For Old Men was but its majestic nature is like few films that have come before it. Almost every shot throughout the film could have adorned the wall of an art gallery.
Warren Ellis and Nick Cave who composed the score, bring the same sparse, stripped down and eery compositions to this film as they brought to their similarly lyrical Western, The Proposition. The beautifully detailed costumes and production design help lend the film the romantic tones it strives for.
The cast is on magnificent form throughout. The continually underrated Sam Rockwell turns in another mighty fine supporting turn as Charley Ford, the good hearted, good natured, simple brother of the eponymous assassin. Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider all turn in differing degrees of fine work as the members of the James gang, all turning on one another, a self combusting unit of low lives.
Zooey Deschanel and Mary Louise Parker, two mighy fine actresses are restricted to little more than cameos yet, being the quality performers they are, both make the absolute most of their slight material. Parker as Jesse James’ wife, Zee is the conscience of her husband, the down to earth, homemaking wife who has little more than a gaze of mistrust for all the men in her husbands life, and her final scene by her husbands side is a mournful piece of work completely out of left field. Entirely putting in the shade other actresses this year that have grieved for dead husbands with all the creative ingenuity of a hack. Parker’s pitiful, restrained wails are of a woman who has long expected this moment to come, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work; as is Zooey Deschanel in her brief appearance as Robert Ford’s wife lights up the screen with her glances and gestures, the probing delivery of her dialogue, she reads the ‘coward’ and finally draws the truth out of him.
Yet when all is said and done this is the story of two men and they both carry it off with aplomb. Some have been critical of Brad Pitt’s casting, hoping that a ‘real’ actor could have had the chance to sink his teeth into the part, yet there are two very important and perfect reasons for his casting.
Firstly, this IS a very distinct sort of film – long, slow, with none of the stand offs and shoot outs one has come to expect from a Western; with a ten word title that is just as uncompromising as it’s tone. It was Pitt himself who had it stipulated in his contract that the title of the film could not be changed and one can only assume that where it not for the participation of a star of this magnitude, the film that reached the screen would have had to take a great deal more in the way artistic liberties to reach audiences.
Secondly this is essentially a portrait of societies obsession with celebrity, with a man attempting to bring down a superstar so that he may become one himself; who better to cast in such a part than one of the biggest movie star’s on the planet?
All this aside, Pitt plays the part beautifully. This is unquestionably the finest work of his career. He makes no apologies for the man he is playing, his Jesse James is utterly insane and he begins unfurling from the very start. A tortured, haunted man, coming apart at the seams, it’s pretty disturbing to watch and never at any point does he stray over the top.
Yet at heart this is Robert Ford’s story and Casey Affleck emerges out of obscurity with what is turning out to be one hell of a year, after his wonderfully hard edged, soft centred turn in Gone Baby, Gone he gives here the type of whiny, snivelling, shady performance that I would feel most comfortable comparing to something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The low, whiny, voice that emerges from a half opened mouth, the hunched shoulders, this is a physical performance as much as anything else. Affleck presents Robert Ford to us as an incredibly thoughtful, confused, obsessive young man with no idea of his direction in the universe. A man willing to do anything to make a name for himself when the object of his lifelong obsession turns out to be nothing like he expected.
Andrew Dominik should be applauded for his efforts, the unneccessary overuse of the narration and a few subplots that could have been considered expendable aside, this is a beautiful work of artistry, another fine addition to the modern western, a melancholy stroll through obsession and misguided perceptions of the world. One can only hope that the director will not take 7 more years to get another film made, and that when it comes he can maintain the haunting vision of this one.