Thursday, 10 November 2011

My favourite film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

What's to like about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Well, many things if you can get past the title. When asked what my favourite film is my response is often one which leaves people unfamiliar with the film either dumbfounded or under the impression that my taste is pretentious, I can see why as it's a simple enough question yet my reply can appear concieted. The film's title was written into Brad Pitt's contract when he signed on, he had it included because if the studios were to try and change the name (which they did) he'd exit the project. They knew it was financial ruin, he didn't care, and neither do I.

So, what do I like about this film so much? For a start you could watch the film on mute and still have one of the best 3hrs of your life; Roger Deakins' photography is utter perfection with each shot he and director Andrew Dominik constructed worthy of being framed and shown off anywhere. Both studied rare photos from the time period and made the conscious decision to accurately recreate America at this time rather than dress it up as a 'western', the Hollywood rendition of the old west, after all it had aesthetically more in common with Victorian England than anything we're used to seeing in films. The performances are outstanding, never missing a beat and ranging a spectrum of emotions. By the end each character has felt real, like you knew them slightly, or at least only understanding them. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have written some of the finest music ever put to film, music that like the story of betrayal, obsession and myth that it covers, stays with you and haunts you leaving you cold when you think about it upon chance.

[What does Jesse keep seeing? His own death?]

The story of Jesse James is timeless, adapted from Ron Hansen's novel of the same name it is a story that allegorically speaks in spades according to the multimedia celebrity circus we live in today. Jesse James has become more than a man, he has become myth, a legend. He has transcended morality by living forever through the myth that he in part created but inevitably couldn't control. This is highlighted immediately within the film's opening shots aided by an omniscient narrator; the narrator speaks of the Jesse James myth and rumours taken from 'witnesses' of his actions, what is said off screen by the narrator is contradicted on screen by Jesse himself; in a simple but effective moment Jesse (Brad Pitt) stands alone in a field, the narrator speaks that Jesse has a condition know as "granulated eyelids" which causes him to blink more than usual "as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept", while we are hearing this information what we see is Jesse staring morosely into nothingness for an extended period of time without blinking, a melancholic stare that comes accustomed to Jesse as the film goes on. Of course what these openings moments show is that no one knows the real Jesse despite his celebrity claiming to know everything about him, Jesse the myth and Jesse the man are separate entities and who better than Brad Pitt of all actors to convey this parable to us.

The story of course works as a retelling of Judas's betrayal of Jesus, a betrayal that Jesus knew was coming. Throughout this story we get the feeling from Jesse (like Jesus) that he sees his own death before him, the moroseness of his character the long stares into nothingness and of course the ambiguous confusing moments of his murder. Did Jesse always know that Bob would kill him? How and also when he would die? These questions proposed by the film majorly adds to what makes it so thoroughly haunting. The film starts off with a meal between Jesse and his men before they embark on their last heist together, they are like Jesus and his disciples eating in the last supper at the end of their days with a traitor amongst them. Unlike classic rise and fall films The Assassination of Jesse James focuses entirely on the fall and the last days of the James clan after years of crime. After their last job the clan disbands save a few and that's where we are dropped off in the story.

This last mission that Jesse and his men undergo is the robbery of a train; the scene is one of the most beautifully filmed sequences one will ever see and the image of Jesse standing on the tracks awaiting the train in the fog while the other men's masked faces are lit by firelight is the one that stays with you above all.

[A shot to remember]

One might think that Brad Pitt steals the show or at least most of the screen time in this one but that isn't so. Has Brad Pitt ever been better? Probably not, but in a film that boasts a cast of thespians such as Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Garret Dillahunt he was never going to be the soul focus despite his character's status. It really is Bob Ford's story here and Casey Affleck produces a performance so detailed and nuanced, so highly strung and note perfect that the film rests on him and excels because of it. Sam Rockwell takes a slight back seat as Bob's older brother Charley but steals the film every chance he gets in a performance riddled with shame and guilt at the Ford brother's actions and subsequent fame.

As mentioned before, celebrity is at the heart of this story, like Andrew Dominik's previous film Chopper it showcases the power and damage it can hold over an individual and a society. The simple warning is how dangerous it can be to meet your hero, in Bob's case a hero he has idolised to a point of derangement. Upon meeting Jesse, Bob soon realises he is not the great man he grew up reading about in serials, he is a disappointment and so his adoration for him slowly turns to resentment. Despite Bob Ford being a desperate and unhinged character who can only be seen as out for himself, Affleck manages to give us enough to like by giving him a child like innocence that has been tainted somehow, a 20 year old boy trying to be a man marking the world any way he can. The character of Bob is at first easy to detest but even by the end, his life and what has become of him still makes me sad because at the centre of this confused and desperate man was someone who wanted to be loved and taken seriously and for all his efforts and for his sins he was still ridiculed and hated no matter how hard he tried. A tragically pathetic life.

This film has a dreamlike ephemeral quality to it that can not be shaken off, a beauty to it but also great tragedy. For all the films' power and its haunting menace it also offers moments that are delicate and humorous; the opening campfire scene with the James clan is filled with conversations so brilliantly realised you'd think you were eaves dropping on the past, Dick Liddil spouting poetry to an amazed Ed Miller after telling him that poetry is the way to a women's heart and that Ed's one time prostitute did not love him. The constant teasing throughout the film of Bob by Charley feels genuinely heartfelt and brotherly, and Bob's recital at the dinner table of why he and Jesse are so similar is painfully worrying but also strangely hypnotic. It is for these moments that I'm proud to call The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford my favourite film, just don't let the title put you off!

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