Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Classic Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

(Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007)

* * * * * *

He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as "granulated eyelids" and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.

On the back cover of the Souvenir Press edition of Ron Hansen's 1983 novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, centred and emboldened, is an excerpt from the Newsday's review: "Hansen has turned low history into high art". The same can be said for Andrew Dominik's (flawless) screen adaptation. The above narration prologues his movie and synesthetically exposits and eases the audience into its cosmos.

Brad Pitt is extraordinary as over-the-hill Jesse James waiting to be assassinated, either by law-enforcers or outlaws; he is the most wanted man in America. The horse-riding, trilby-donning, cigar-smoking and conscious fame -- You know what John Newman Edwards once wrote about me? -- are pulled off in an unfathomably cool mien. And the ablation of his sanity -- My God, what just happened? I could hear your gears grinding- rrr,rrr,rrr-and your little motor wondering, 'My Gosh, what's next, what's happening to me?' You were precious to behold, Bob. You were white as spit in a cotton field! -- is sincerely tragic. It says a great deal about the Academy Awards that Pitt was nominated for Best Actor in a Lead Role for his sterile performance in The (not very) Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but snubbed entirely for his extraordinary character-execution of America's most loved anti-hero just two years before.

However the film's outstanding actor is surely Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, about whom everything is unpredictable and inglorious. We know what's going to happen from the title, if not the legend, but when, how and why the assassination transpires - and its aftermath - is all the meaningfulness here. Jesse's candour and orneriness, and Bob's eagerness and lust, ricochet. On their fey journey every nuance of feeling is illuminated by body language, soundtrack and our haughty narrator. The whole cast is superb, especially gang members Sam Rockwell (Moon), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Paul Schneider (Bright Star) whose careers have accordingly taken a turn for stardom, or at least considerable critical success since 2007. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is notoriously, perhaps infamously, slow-paced. It's certainly not a film for everybody, and yet the subtleties in every set piece of whatever speed and sound, are breathtaking; whether it's the silent space between Frank and Jesse James, the wispy clouds rushing like fire over the Kentucky skyline, or the way Bob's lips curve into a smile and we can not be sure why.

When this movie was first recommended to me, and no matter who (there have been plenty of worn-down friends and family) I have since introduced Dominik's work to, the same prejudicial doubt is signatured across each 'virgin' face; a doubt that - if put into words - would protest something like this: Jesse James? Bob Ford? Two-and-a-half-hours of poster-boy Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck's brother as cowboys? Spare me. But there's never room for an apology or a glimmer of embarrassment on these faces when the absolving final frame and its symphony have faded: there's only ever awe, the unmistakable, fixed awe of a wax impression. "I need a drink", "Cigarette?", "F*** me"; phrases of this ilk tend to break the silence inspired by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's addictive score that seems, through the slow credits, to mourn the mortality of its movie more so than its protagonists. This is how to transform a novel into a screenplay. This is how to act, edit, direct, and throw light and sound on fascination and betrayal. I'm not ready to write an extensive commentary on the power of this film nor, perhaps, shall I ever be. The light will go out of the eyes of even the world's greatest critics before they can find the right words.

The day before he died was Palm Sunday. And Mr. and Mrs. Howard, their two children and their cousin Charles Johnson strolled to the second Presbyterian Church to attend the 10:00 service. Bob remained at the cottage and slyly migrated from room to room. He walked into the Master bedroom and inventoried the clothes on the hangers and hooks. He sipped from the water glass on the vanity. He smelled the talcum and lilacs on Jesse's pillowcase. His fingers skittered over his ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot. He manufactured a middle finger that was missing the top two knuckles. He imagined himself at 34. He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true.

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