Sunday, July 18, 2010

Film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

There are these ideas we have about America. You may live in the noisiest corner of Manhattan, or the leafiest, three-car-garage-iest suburb in the state, but you can’t tell me there haven’t been times that you’ve heard the word “America” and you pictured a golden prairie with maybe one or two spotted palominos nibbling at the flora. It’s a collective unconscious thing, an idea we’re raised to believe in even if we haven’t ever really seen it—this America that existed before us, where time moved slower, the sun set lower, and extremes of courage, fear, pride, and violence were what made us those brave men and women of the frontier. We have these pictures in our minds of this America that we think we sort of love, if only we could get a better grasp of it.

I re-watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), this weekend, and it reminded me, again, of this elusive America we all grew up looking for. The film, directed by Andrew Dominik, traces the last days of famed wild west outlaw Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt. The narrative begins with the first meeting of James and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), a young and devoted fan who grew up on his own brand of mythic Americana: adventure books about the James gang. While there isn’t what you might call a driving plot in the movie, the narrative meanders through the James Gang’s last train robbery and the series of betrayals and vengeances that follow it, Pitt’s Jesse James (the enigma to end all enigmas) becoming all the while more paranoid and volatile, at times flying off the handle with little provocation and at times sitting with a silent, eerie stillness. And of course there’s that maniacal Tyler Durden laugh that no one who saw Fight Club is ever likely to forget. Affleck plays the part of Ford with an equally powerful anxiety that gets the viewer feeling just as jumpy and nervous as his character on screen. Both lead actors play their parts with subtlety and stillness, as if what they’re both hiding in the interior might burst forth if they ever lost control.

The script, full of really fantastic one-liners (“Poetry don’t work on whores.”) does well installing the audience in the time period, a time when people (almost exclusively men, in the film) spoke frankly, but elegantly. One character asks a man how his recently-shot leg is doing, and he responds “Full of torment, thanks for asking.” Most beautiful are the passages of voice-over narration that are lifted from the original novel, giving the audience glimpses into Jesse and Bob’s internal lives. The day before the once-adoring (and still obsessed) Bob is to kill Jesse, the narrator tells us “His fingers skittered over his own ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot…He imagined himself at [Jesse’s age.] He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of this film, though, is the visual. Some shots blurred and drunk with color and others starkly sharp and hyper-focused, what we’re given is a world of shadows and fires, natural beauty and human isolation. The opening narration mentions that James suffered from a condition called granulated eyelids that caused him to blink more than average, “as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” It’s clear that Dominik set out to film that world, bigger and more beautiful and frightening than any world we could accept. That’s the world that Jesse James inhabited, and that’s the America we’re all born looking for. The film is slow and subtle, dirty and violent and elegant and arresting and absolutely ruthless in its stillness. Go see it, and give yourself another glimpse of the world you forgot you were looking for.


Anonymous said...

Nice review! More please.

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