December 31, 2008
Last night I watched “The assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. Now there’s a plot spoiler for you. It’s like calling some other films “Big Ship Hits Iceberg and Sinks”, or “Tom Cruise Tries but Fails to Kill Hitler”, or “Yes! He Was a Ghost All Along”; instead of “Titanic“, “Valkyrie” and “The Passion of the Christ”. Ok, I cheated with that last one but I didn’t want to mess up “The Sixth Sense” for those who haven’t seen it.
Except, in the case of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”, maybe all isn’t as it seems.
That’s the real Jesse James on the left. The one lying down. In a coffin. Dead. After he’d been shot by the “coward” Robert Ford. I pinched the pic from the Encyclopedia Britannia. Find their Jesse James stuff here.
“The assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was written and directed by Andrew Dominik and I’m thinking I need to watch out for this guy, in a Paul Thomas Anderson kind of way.
(Little aside; I’m scared by how good Paul Thomas Anderson is, writing and directing Magnolia at the age of 29… that’s knowing things no 29 year old should know).
Now, Mr. Dominik is older and he’s only made two films; this and “Chopper”. (I find out all these things after the fact; I’m just a film fan with access to Wikipedia). So then it clicks, sort of, because years back I saw “Chopper” and it had an affect. If there is a link between these two films, and I am reaching far back in time and memory here, it is that they both took iconic figures and did a bit of a job on them. Maybe Mr. Dominik, with his mildly sinister spelling, is a bit of an iconoclast.
I don’t know the story of Jesse James and I don’t know if the truth matters to appreciate this film. Here’s a simple approach to that plot spoiler of a title, and making it not so much of a plot spoiler as you might think; Robert Ford isn’t a coward. He’s sweet, he’s troubled, he’s young, he awes, he’s bullied, he creeps. He’s a mess of a 20 year old who worships every inch of a very unlikeable Jesse James. And the Jesse James we see… shooting people in the back, mentally and physically torturing the young, and then crying over every part of himself that he knows is wrong… is played by Brad Pitt. That’s brave casting. I’ve not seen every Brad Pitt film, but I know his iconic status. I know his Tyler Durden, his Benjamin Button, his J.D, his Floyd, his David Mills, his Jeffrey Goines, his Joe Black, his Rusty Ryan… even his Achilles… and if you recognise some of these parts, you also know how rarely he plays a heel (Oh, I am so sorry.)
But it’s true; all men may not want to be Brad Pitt, but I bet they would like to be the parts he’s played. And so Jesse James is a problem. A “hero” of the Old West who… well…
And the assassination? Technically, true. But Jesse needed to die. He’d had it. He’d had enough. You may despise him in the film, and you may be confused because “that’s Brad Pitt.” But looks at those eyes; not only does Jesse despise himself, but even Brad seems to despise having to play him. Eyes, windows, souls, blah blah blah, but I challenge you to watch this film and not see it to be a truth.
This is a long film. And maybe when words (let alone film titles) become unreliable, you need long looks to tell the story. Early on in the film Dick Liddel, the poetically inclined womanising member of the James’ gang, observes that “you can hide things in vocabulary.” And late on in the film when the the “assassination” comes the narrator talks of Jesse’s final moments thus; “the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words”.
A long film. A leisurely film. A long goodbye. And beautifully shot by Coen Brothers regular Roger Deakins (without realising this connection, my mum likened the look of the film to Fargo). Epic landscapes; interior and exterior.
If you like long films where you know the ending, but you hated Titanic, then this is the film for you.
Oh, and in keeping with a theme of the film, a motif, I’ve unwittingly let Casey Affleck go unmentioned. He played the coward. He played Robert Ford. Again, watch those eyes work. Or not work. There’s no big acting here, but there is time on the side of the actors, time to look in as they look out. And he’s an Affleck who can act.