Monday, February 25, 2008

Ghost of a Legend

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an elegy of futility, an exquisite scorched earth of a movie. Its themes creep up on you and seep into your bones. A tale of friendship and betrayal, it’s also a portrait of rootlessness, of violent men who kill because they don’t know what else men are supposed to do, and it has some of the grizzled, melancholic grandeur of Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns. Yet there’s nothing generic about this film, and nothing melodramatic either; it’s closer to lyric realism. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from a novel by Ron Hansen, the film is an epic poem, a primordial vision. With its dreamlike landscapes and its delicate piano and violin score, The Assassination of Jesse James owes a clear debt to the early films of Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), and there are images here that are among the most beautiful and haunting I have ever seen in a movie. Yet the visuals are never made to compensate for a lack of story (as with Malick’s later films), and they aren’t hypnotic for their own sake. Dominik uses them sparingly, poetically, like a master painter. The film is almost three hours long, but it doesn’t meander and it never seems indulgent. Dominik shows a loving attention to detail, a sense of the ebb and flow of his scenes, that is reminiscent of Coppola’s first two Godfather films. Assassination isn’t quite on that level (its characters aren’t that rich or alive, and the story, though poignant, isn’t full-blown tragedy), but how many films can be compared to The Godfather? I think it’s the finest Western film since McCabe and Mrs. Miller (it has a similar delicate pathos and poetic intensity), and never mind the Oscars: it’s easily the best film of 2007.

At first, Brad Pitt might seem somewhat lacking in the central role. Pitt is a problematic actor: when he has a role that allows him to get out of himself and let rip (such as Twelve Monkeys or Fight Club), he can be a riveting, electrifying presence; but like Jack Nicholson, he can also be lazy and coast on star appeal. He does a little of that here: his Jesse seems only partly rendered, a sketch, and as a result the film at times lacks for a stronger center. But Pitt’s Jesse grows on you. This is an extremely tricky performance and in the end I think he pulls it off and does some of his best work. Pitt makes Jesse both menacing and oddly affecting, lost and almost childlike, a figure of pathos. And although we never really come to know him, there are moments when Pitt suggests that Jesse is an enigma even to himself. (When he talks about counting the stars, for example: a confederate says he isn’t even sure what stars are, and Jesse replies, “Your body knows; your mind just forgot, that’s all.”)

There are plenty of performances to watch here: Jeremy Renner as Wood, Sam Shepard as Frank James, and especially Paul Schneider (from All the Real Girls), as Dick Liddil. Kailin See, as a sexually frustrated house-wife Dick allows to seduce him, gives the only outstanding female performance. (Despite her high billing, Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse’s loving wife Zee, barely appears in the film except to look loving and to bemoan Jesse’s death). And although he has a major role as Charlie Ford, the usually mesmerizing Sam Rockwell isn’t given enough to do here. You’d never guess how talented he is from this role, but he’s a welcome presence anyway.

The outstanding performance comes from Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother), whose creepy Bob Ford is one of the most original characters ever created for the screen. From his first moments, Affleck puts us on guard: there’s something not quite right about Bob, yet we can’t put our finger on it. (By the end of the film we still don’t know; Shepard’s Frank states it for us, however, in the very first scene: “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.”) Bob’s worship of Jesse prefigures the slavish, faintly psychotic devotion of modern-day celebrity hounds like King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin; when Bob smiles, he sets his small teeth on edge and we can feel the hostility lurking inside him, waiting to come out. (It may be buried so deep even he is unaware of it.) In the end, the film is as much about Bob as it is about Jesse (who is never quite real to us), and maybe more so. The amorphous spell of melancholy which the film casts upon us comes as much from our feelings for Bob as for Jesse. Creepy as he is, we never hate Bob; by the end, we may feel almost unbearable pity for him.

It may be facile to say that The Assassination of Jesse James is about lost souls and false heroes; the film is so deftly, instinctively made, so light of touch, that it never pushes its meanings. But they are there, and the exquisite beauty of the film, the ghostlike images, the long silences, the open spaces it allows to exist both inside and between the scenes, combine to create a haunted, otherworldly quality, and a sense of unglimpsed depths. There’s a moment, towards the end of the film, when the Ford brothers leave the James house where they are staying (and where Bob will assassinate Jesse), and we are allowed to see the surrounding countryside, and the skeletal town that is growing up in it. The image comes as a shock, because until now the intimacy of the film has kept our focus closely bound to the characters; despite its epic scope, there seemed no need to recreate the greater world in which they exist (or for the film’s budget to include such elaborate sets). The image is all the more breathtaking for coming so unexpected, and we may be struck by how much care has gone into creating this world, seemingly for its own sake, independent of the story. At such a late stage, letting us see the fruit of this work seems almost an afterthought. Dominik may be so intensely inside his vision that he is indifferent to whether or not we experience it—the process of creation is enough. He has the focus and immersion of a true alchemist.

This is an almost perfect film (the ungainly title and the absence of women characters notwithstanding; even Nick Cave’s improbable cameo is forgivable—he co-wrote the gorgeous score with Warren Ellis). Yet it’s an elusive work, and definitely not for everyone. A lot of people will miss its ineffable, alchemical grace, and mistake it for a rather long, lugubrious Western. Like Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dominik is not interested in genre conventions, not even enough to subvert them. He’s inventing a whole new genre in order for this one work to be exactly what it needs to be. (There’s very little action in the film, yet it’s full of suspense; and the occasional violence is never what we expect, it’s never not disturbing.) At times, the effects Dominik gets are so unique, so inspired, that they seem faintly mysterious. He’s a major, major talent. The Assassination of Jesse James is both an epic about the process by which legends are made and a tender, intimate love story between two antagonists so utterly dissimilar they might come from two different worlds. Yet they do have one thing in common: both men are so lost to themselves that at times the film seems almost like a ghost story. In a way, that’s what it is.

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