Thursday, 6 December 2007

the assassination of jesse james by the coward robert ford (d. andrew dominik)

There's an odd moment well over half way through the film when Robert Ford meets a senior politician. Played by a bald-headed man who's recognisable but hard to pin a name on. It turns out to be James Carville, the former Clinton campaign manager. Someone who knows the workings of power inside out. Former figures from the world of politics playing at acting usually look foolish and make the film they've been placed in look foolish too, but Carville doesn't and neither does Dominik's movie. Somehow, in the breadth and weight of it's study of power, fame and destiny, his presence seems appropriate.

The Assassination... comes in at 16o minutes. It's not a jaunty ride. A lot of the most interesting material takes place in the final 15, after Jesse James' death. In the subsequent fate of his killer, Robert Ford, there's a whole other movie lurking. There might be legitimate questions about the conservatism of the script's reluctance to play around with time frames, using a voiceover which feels like the film's weakest link instead. Ford's destiny is inextricably linked to that of the gunslinger he grew up admiring. This instigates a wonderful circularity to the narrative, which could have been explored in a less teleological fashion.

That's about the only criticism that can be levelled at Dominik's epic. Like many non-native directors filming in North America (most of the film was shot in Canada) - Dominik seems to have fallen in love with a vast attritional landscape. The space that's given to the landscape by the cinematography is redolent of Malick, snowy wastes deputising for rippling corn fields. The voiceover is also, perhaps, a nod in the old master's direction. The other spirit hovering over the slow-burning narrative is that of Leone. The creation of atmosphere requires time; language needs to be allowed its richness; tension mounts the longer the note is held.

At it's heart, as the title implies, this is a film about a relationship between two men. Accordingly the film sinks or swims on the strength of the twin lead performances. Pitt's job is the harder. He has to play not merely a posthumous myth, but a living one. Jesse James, as depicted in the film, was a convoluted idol. Ruthless killer and loving family man. It's not easy to pull off these masculine contradictions, but Pitt manages it. And he conveys something more (with its own echoes of Eastwood in Leone's films) - which is that the gunslinger does not excel through speed or courage, but through a knowledge of his fellow man, an ability to read what his enemy is thinking behind the eyes. Jesse James, in Pitt's portrayal, doesn't look like he's ever read a book; but he knows the workings of a man's mind.

However, the film requires more than just a fine performance from Pitt. Casey Affleck as Ford needs to match him. From the moment he first appears, to be scolded by Sam Shepherd, Affleck captures the wistful blend of dreamer and wannabe that Ford may well have been. The performance builds through the film, with the parentless Affleck conveying in the sullen twitch of an eye everything you need to know about the adolescent's reaction to the thing he's grown up loving. The final 15 minutes, after the deed has been done, gives a glimpse of how he could have mastered the more subtle psychological genesis of the child becoming a man damned by his youthful hubris.

Dominik's film rides its ambitions. In a way it shows that what a filmmaker needs to do is attend to the details. Nick Cave's score is suitably powerful, Roger Deakins' cinematography acquires the epic touch that the tale requires. The dialogue is artful, yet convincing. The words smell of damp nights camped out in the woods; or the slip of the tongue that can prove a death sentence. The performances across the board stand up to the presence of the two leads. Once all these and the thousand and one other details are in place, the narrative of how power attracts and corrupts can unfold. In the manner of a 19th century Russian novel, Dominik allows the intranigence of fate to play itself out in the twinned destinies of the idol and the worshipper who becomes a Judas.

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