Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Assassination of Jesses James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir. Andrew Dominik

2007 was a hell of a year for film. Were it not for P.T. Anderson's magnum opus, the Coen's darkest (and possibly best) venture, the Palm D'or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, David Fincher's glorious Zodiac, the impeccable I'm Not There as well as several other outstanding films from directors new and old, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may have had a chance of establishing its own mythic stature. This isn't meant to downplay the critical and commercial reception of the film nor to eschew its quality. Just the opposite: it is an attempt to suggest that through its incredible psychological depth mirrored in its breathtaking pictorial quality and ability to co-opt American myth to comment back on American myth making, The Assassination of Jesse James was then and continues to be, like James himself, ahead of its time.

In age inundated with films of all types and quality, from the hysterical spectacle of the Hollywood blockbuster to the outsider installation-ready art film, suggesting a film is “ahead of its time” may be kind of a moot point. Which films recognize and represent our cinematic time? In 1942 when Orson Welles released Citizen Kane, a film that utilized a myriad of unseen techniques to a sophisticated and highly effective end, it was not so obvious that the film was “ahead of its time”. In fact, like so many masterpieces before and after it, it was a critical and commercial failure; rejected by its viewership like one fickly rejects an unappealing flavor in a dish. Almost 70 years later it is unanimously praised as the most important film of all time. Upon my first viewing of The Assassination of Jesse James I rejected the film on the grounds that it was blaise mythologizing, tedious and banal, creating an artificial gravity around a subject that could not hold its own weight. In retrospect I can say that I was not paying enough attention. Closer examination revealed a world of psychological intimidation and obsession. Themes of distortion, of vision through the smearing of camera lenses and blurry windows of the picture perfect colonial houses and of time through the panoramic vistas with clouds rushing by above them, etched an aching metaphor of Robert Ford's painful detachment from reality and Jesse Jame's descent into madness. The quantity of characters and their offscreen movement, before seemingly untraceable, shaped itself into a dramatic symphony of elements; a exquisite counterpoint of desire and duty. Most importantly, the severe but never overt emotional undertones of the film came through, as a crescendo, building to a soaring catharsis of a climax reaching its hand out of the screen and tugging the viewer by the collar into the depraved and alienating world of myth.

The myth that the film relies so heavily upon is actually based, as much as possible, on fact. The central story, that of Jesse James “befriending” Robert Ford (the true central character of the film) and his eventual, intentional death/suicide at his hands, is true. The myth, that is not so much cruelly debunked as it is gently, if painfully, revealed, is the one in Robert Ford's mind. That myth, of Jesse James as a God, is further encouraged by the film's voice over narration which unveils details of Jesse's inner life that create a rich subtext of his sometimes inexplicable actions and abilities. The film is less about an accurate portrayal of the past as it about personal, subjective history. It not about knowing the textbook facts but memorizing the penny arcade story, which is of course more interesting and much more revealing. The film's core story sometimes feels like the stuff of myth, although it is firmly grounded in historical realism. The myth exists in between the words and the actions, in the breathing room that Dominik expertly allows for. It is during these moments, when we are asked to study the nervous twitch of Ford's face or the omnipotent reflection in Jame's eye, that the infinite myth of the film reveals itself.

Dominik takes both a minimalist and maximalist approach to his film. The aforementioned emphasis on spaciousness in the dialog and the supreme concentration on his actors (still not enough has been said about Casey Afleck and Brad Pitt who offer career expanding and career topping performances, respectfully) is uniquely balanced by his rigorous attention to period detail and a noteworthy ability to subtly illuminate and apprehend the viewer, both of which greatly deepen the film's astounding ethos. The film also represents a perfect conjunction of minds. Dominik, working with veteran actor Brad Pitt alongside no-longer up-and-coming Casey Affleck, utilizes the multiform talents of director of photography Roger Deakins (who impressively also filmed No Country for Old Men that same year), procures Nick Cave and Warren Ellis who create a score wonderfully harmonic with the meloncholy tone of the film, and snatches Spielberg's editor. Spare no expense, indeed! And the result is a masterpiece of modern cinema.

Though it may be cinematic blasphemy to continue the line of reasoning that compares The Assassination of Jesse James to Citizen Kane but nevertheless the parallels linking the two are evident. Thematically and cinematically the two are cut from the same cloth. Whether James proves to be as important as Kane is for history, and the omnipotent power of myth, to decide.

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