Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

US, 2007, directed by Andrew Dominik

For one reason or another, I ended up seeing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford without having read any reviews. As the lights dimmed, I finally remembered why I recognized director Andrew Dominik's name, having seen his only previous feature, the 2000 Australian film Chopper. As this new film washed over me, it put me in mind of a Western shot by Terrence Malick, something that seemed worthy of noting in a future blog posting, only to discover, when reading about the film subsequently, that everyone else already knew this. Dominik even received a 'Thanks to' credit on Malick's most recent film, The New World, though I don't know what his contribution was.

Dominik's film is reminiscent of Malick primarily for its gorgeous visuals, and its frequent focus on visual textures; in other respects it departs the Malick mould, with a stronger narrative line, and fewer extended passages of abstraction, than Malick's more recent films, parts of which occasionally strike me as self-indulgent. Dominik's choice of title (from Ron Hansen's source novel) also gives his film a sense of concrete inevitability that isn't captured in Malick titles like The New World or The Thin Red Line. The themes of Dominik's film are familiar from Chopper, which also focused on the image of a notorious outlaw who became a folk hero to some (there's an echo of the Ned Kelly myth here, too). Mark "Chopper" Read has been more active in crafting his own media image, where Jesse James left the mythologizing to others, while remaining acutely aware of everything written about him. The film casts James as a proto-modern celebrity (an idea enhanced by using as actor as visible as Brad Pitt) with his own developing fanbase, as exemplified by the adoring yet thin-skinned Ford (Casey Affleck).

From the film's opening moments, there's a gnawing air of foreboding to the entire enterprise, as if death could emerge at any moment. The characters themselves often seem to accept this, having chosen to live in a violent world wherein death is accorded no great weight when it finally arrives; when James talks of a murder, one of his gang says simply "I'm a little angry with you", as if referring to some minor event. That doesn't mean James and his gang are unfeeling: James is hollowed out by stress, while other men are reduced to shadows by shifting loyalties, against a brutally hardscrabble rural background. Indeed, almost all of the men are strikingly pale, despite lives lived essentially outdoors, on horseback or in the fields.

As Robert Ford, the erstwhile hanger-on, Casey Affleck is unnerving. He hangs on James's every syllable, constantly seeking affirmation, pathetically unable to exit his hero's orbit. Affleck's face captures Ford's emotional disarray at even the mildest of slights; it's subtle work, his face changing so slowly it's sometimes like watching the play of light rather than muscle movement. With Gone Baby Gone added to the mix, 2007 was a remarkable year for the actor.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States