Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Movies A-Z: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik 2007)

There is a meditative dreamlike quality to this remarkable film that belies the brutality of its subject matter. Brad Pitt, as Jesse James, demonstrates that he can act when given the right role, but it’s the incredibly talented Casey Affleck, in the role of Robert Ford who gives the stand out performance. There has been a lot of talk lately about Leonardo Di Caprio being ‘the finest actor of his generation,’ and certainly he is a fine actor. But there is nothing in Di Caprio’s oeuvre to compare with Affleck’s performance here or in Gone Baby Gone, brilliantly directed by Casey’s brother, the other Affleck (turns out he’s been on the wrong side of the camera all these years).

As young, inexperienced and naïve Robert Ford ingratiates himself to the James gang, and gradually comes to see how much of a pigmy he is beside his hero, the hurt, the resentment, and the anger become almost palpable in Affleck’s performance. To go one better than the gunslinger whose exploits he has followed in treasured, dog-eared dime novels, he must kill his hero. Only then can he show them all, and more importantly himself, that he can live out the fantasy of the folk hero and join the pantheon of outlaws in the hallowed halls of wild bunch legend. The deepest aspect of the tragedy is that instead of becoming a legend, Ford becomes the most hated man in America.

The literary quality of the voice-over is due to the source material, Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name. Hansen is a Catholic Deacon who cites the influence of the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola on his storytelling. "One of the exercises is you are who you follow – Christ or the evil one?" he said. Robert Ford is a follower of James; he wants to be James and the results are tragic for both men. There is an interesting interview with the author here in which he reflects theologially on his work.

New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik’s direction is flawless. Dominik is perhaps best known for Chopper and though both films are about outlaws there is a romance and nobility about this story that is absent from the stark nihilism of Chopper. The realism of the film is notable, including gunfights that are completely out of step with Hollywood conventionalism. Those old six-shooters were remarkably inaccurate and it was a lot harder to kill a man in the days of the Wild West than John Ford ever let on. The close range gunfights with hopelessly ineffective weaponry that feature in this film make that clear, and lend an historical accuracy rare in a western. Watch also for a cameo from Nick Cave singing “The Ballad of Jesse James,” accompanying himself on a nice little parlour guitar. This is certainly one of my favourite westerns, even though in a way it's really about the end of "the west." You can view a trailer here.

1 comment:

Ross said...

After reading this review, you've got me interested in this film. I'll have to add it to my Quickflix queue.


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