Portrait of a bank-robber as a rock star
Love it or hate it, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a sight to see. It has the stateliness of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, the sumptuous slow camera pans and zooms that indicate a leisurely investigation into a profound mystery, but it's in its handling of white that the film really comes into its own. White linens, white-clouded skies, white canvas, white light streaming in through frosted glass--seems to me cinematographer Roger Deakins was asked to bring forth every variant in shade and hue that he can think of, and fashion the film accordingly (even in the night-time sequences, of which there are a few, your eyeballs have been exposed to so much white that you blink at this sudden change, as if at an affront).
And why not? The film is shaped and paced like an elegy, and while white is not usually associated with death or dying (in the more recent West, that is; in China and even medieval Europe, white signifies mourning), the purity of the color (or rather, lack of) is such that it suggests a preoccupation with the next world, not this one.
That is easily the profoundest idea the film has, or is able to visualize; the rest seems more like a sketch of profundity, an attempt to evoke it that misses the real thing. The film focuses on the erstwhile Judas of the story, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and his unabashed admiration for James (Brad Pitt), who he meets during the latter's last few years of life. Ford worms his way into James' confidence--how, I'm not quite sure; Ford as Affleck plays him gives off such creepy vibes I'd have slapped a restraint order on the man before I would talk to him--accompanies him through what can more or less be considered the bandit's decline, then (I'm not exactly spoiling anything, am I? The climax is telegraphed by the very title) sends a bullet through James' head when his back is turned.
One if the film's biggest problems is the narration: Hugh Ross speaks endlessly throughout the length of the two-hour plus film, explaining to us actions carried out onscreen, telling us exactly how this or that character feels, giving us the impression of momentous events taking place. Writer-director Dominik seems to lack confidence in his writing abilities, or loves the Ron Hansen novel so much he has to quote pages and pages of it (or at least give the impression that he is); he doesn't trust silence itself, the way say Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky--or their artistic descendants Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant, Terence Malick, Lav Diaz, to name a few--would trust it, trust the audience to find meaning in it, and in the mysterious images onscreen.
("But what about Robert Bresson?" one might ask. Sure Bresson used voiceover narration extensively, but when you think about the connection between words and images, the relationship is never simplistic. Bresson doesn't just use narration to mickey-mouse the action; the narration (most famously in Journal d'un cure de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1961) done by the protagonist himself as if reading from his eponymous dairy) often stands out in ironic counterpoint, or adds something to the image--a hidden inner mood, a stray thought or idea--that we otherwise couldn't be aware of.)
Affleck is the film's focus, but there's no question that Pitt's James is the picture's star, and here I think the filmmakers commit a disastrous mistake--Pitt's a handsome camera subject and a cunning comic actor, but for something this solemn he's simply not the man for the job. You see him set his jaw in a sullen line, his eyes flicking this way and that, and Pitt would probably justify this as his way of suggesting that James is alert to his surroundings but I think it's his way of seeking escape from the straitjacket he's confined in. Pitt's quick reflexes and even quicker wit comes out on occasion, when James is required to demonstrate psychotic behavior in motion, but for the most part the actor seems like a man buried alive, his lithe body contorted in a series of lifeless poses, his best instincts smothered in a ton of art-film pretense.
Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is the film's heart, of course, and for the most part, especially after James' death, he manages to win our sympathies; it's mainly the way his character is conceived and used that's problematic--the aforementioned creepiness, for example, that only the totally oblivious or an idiot would fail to consider. When Pitt as James is eliminated, Affleck's Ford comes to fore, and the film gains some kind of tragic grandeur; without Pitt's lesser-than-life presence, James can finally become the mythic figure Ford constantly struggles against, and ultimately loses to.
It's not as if Dominik is without talent; with Deakins' help he manages to create gorgeous imagery (on occasion he manages to re-create the blurred edges found in pinhole photographs); during the rare gunfight he eschews the fast cutting and mostly dizzying handheld camerawork fashionable of action films nowadays and simply keeps his lens trained on the man with the gun, sustains the moment, allows us to squirm in anticipation of the hunk of steel in the man's hand detonating.
Critics have likened the film to Altman's classic Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) for its wintry disposition, but I think the more instructive comparison is with Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, (1972) made a year later, which actually involves Jesse James. Where Dominik's film is stately and not a little self-important Kaufman's is lively, inquisitive, seemingly curious about not just its main characters but everyone onscreen (even the crazed homeless man who pops up wandering the streets turns out to have a crucial role in the story). James (played by Robert Duvall) is a sniggering, dull-minded psychopath--a more historically accurate portrait, in my opinion. The real focus of interest and the one whose point of view closely mirrors the film's (you might say the director tells the story through his eyes) is Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson as a worn yet somehow wide-eyed amateur philosopher and mechanical enthusiast, eager to explore the world and its many curiosities (as Younger would often put it "ain't that a wonderment?"). Dominik's and Kaufman's films cover different periods of James' life (the end of James' life; the end of the James-Younger gang), emphasize different issues (the passing of a famous man into myth; the ironies and intricacies of the world), and take widely divergent approaches to their subject matter (James seen as a rock star in decline; James as a brute); call it prejudice or bias, but I much prefer Kaufman's film.
(First published in Businessworld, 2/22/08)