Wednesday 4 March 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Mark Kermode (or Mark Fairey as I recently discovered his real name to be) got quite angry last year when this film didn't clean up at the Oscars. 'Visually rich, dramatically mournful, and thematically existential, this was quite the best film of 2007' were his words. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel by Ron Hansen as you can see here and finally got around to seeing the film version the other day (when you know a film is almost three hours long its difficult to find the time to sit down and commit). My wife lasted an hour before decamping, finding it difficult to care about cowboys; the opening scenes are pretty hard to follow with the dialogue kept mumbled and idiomatic, but this is a definite slow burner, a mood piece, and if you can make the time for it, it really does repay your effort.

As the poster above would suggest the film is dominated by its two central performances. Brad Pitt as James is mean and moody one moment, hysterical and demonstrative the next. It's refreshing to see the lines under his eyes and the marks on his skin for a change, not to mention oneof hose performances that reminds you that the man really can act. The novel was so pleasing due to the complex psychological workings whirring throughout but Pitt is adept at bringing some of those to the film with his looks into the middle-distance, especially towards the film's close. Casey Affleck is a revelation. Having only previously seen him in Ocean's Eleven (in which, don't get me wrong, he was good) it is astounding to see him inhabit the character I had read so vividly. With his reedy voice and darkened eyes, the chin often dipped but fighting to rise in confidence, he is a weak and yet sinister figure from start to finish. It is a fantastic example of being able to dominate a film without resort to bombast or pyrotechnics. Subtle, accurate and precise (I'd better watch myself or I'll come over all Kermode on you), it is indeed a shame that he lost out on an Oscar to the haircut that is Javier Bardem.

It is as faithful an adaptation as you could hope for, with huge chunks of text lifted directly from the novel (including all the quotes I used in my review). The cinematography is impressive as you would expect from Roger Deakins, the harsh conditions and era evident in the distressed and weathered skin that we are unused to seeing in modern films. Writer/director Andrew Dominik takes his time in creating his atmosphere. There are indeed a few too many shots of clouds speeding by, but some of the landscapes are absolutely stunning and the visual language that he develops during the film makes the final scenes leading up to the film's titular killing poetic, majestic and loaded with meaning. This surely is what cinema is supposed to do better than any other medium. That said there is something special about reading the book which means that it will always remain foremost in my mind, even set alongside this excellent adaptation.


Anonymous,  4 March 2009 at 10:37  

Hi William,
I'm glad you liked this despite your aversion to westerns. What interested me was the way James' paranoia was portrayed as almost contagious - a sickness that infects and then destroys the gang's unity.

Regarding the "too many shots of clouds speeding by" - I think I made the same point in my post on this film - when will filmakers realise this is technique is neither an original nor meaningful way to create atmosphere? It's such a blatant cliché I'm amazed to see it in a film which is otherwise so thoughtfully made.

Although this is a fine revisionist western, for me it isn't quite in the category of Eastwood's Unforgiven - my favourite of the later westerns -which contains similar ruminations on myth and violence.

William Rycroft 4 March 2009 at 11:27  

I remember reading your post a while back and that's why I was primed about the clouds. At least we didn't get the day-into-night-into-day shot.

Unforgiven is one of those films I've never got around to seeing even though everyone seems to love it. On your word James I'll give it a go at some point.

Now, I see you've read quite a lot of Cormac McCarthy but not yet Blood Meridian. I'd really recommend it. Find out why here or just take my word for it!

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