(29/11/07) – With a title like this you know you are in for an epic Western and, although this is essentially what you get, there is more than an element of the Shakespearean Tragedy to director Andrew Dominik’s follow up to Chopper. The violence of the Western is merged with the existential turmoil of its characters in a narrative that is revealing in its pacing and dramatic tension. The era of the modern Western is definitely in full swing at the moment and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is certainly a strong addition to the genre. The film doesn’t just pay homage to the classic Western, it also ties in references to some key films of the past 30 years which have in their own way re-invented the genre. The result is a brilliant and complex work, beautifully shot, wonderfully cast, scored, and acted.
It would be easy to create a checklist for the perfect Western and it would be possible to sit down with that list whilst watching The Assasination of Jesse James…‘ and start finding all of the crucial elements. What Dominik has managed to achieve in his adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel of the last year of Jesse James is a very rich film in which characters struggle with their morals whilst vying for space on screen with the extremes of the North American landscape.
While Brad Pitt is perfectly cast as the charismatic Jesse, it is Casey Affleck’s performance as his hero worshiping and callow shadow that really steals the show. While Pitt is solid and his character remains a constant throughout the film, it is the development of the increasingly anguished character of Affleck’s Robert Ford that drives the story. There are echoes of the tension between Christ and Iscariot, or Iago and Othello, in the relationship of the outlaw and the young man who wants so much to be him. As one character resigns himself to Fate, the other carries out Fate’s wishes while feverishly believing himself to be anything other than yet another preordained fool. To be honest Brad Pitt has little to do other than play a character not too dissimilar to himself in terms of being undisputed king at the pinnacle of celebrity, with looks that can do no wrong.
The perfect counterbalance in the film’s dynamic comes in the fact that Affleck’s performance is as wound up and wounded as Pitt’s is assured and complacent. The central performances of these two are well complimented by the support cast but at times threaten to be upstaged by what is perhaps the true star of the film – the North American landscape, sumptuously captured through the lens of Roger Deakins.
The cinematography in this film is what should make anyone with an aversion to the Western as a genre go to see it anyway. Roger Deakins manages to evoke the beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, (echoed somewhat by the presence of Sam Shepard as Frank James). Through the scope of his lens and the different seasons on display, the film brings to mind the effect of such distinctively sharp landscape photography in the likes of McCabe and Mrs Miller, Heaven’s Gate, and Miller’s Crossing. The time delayed shots of vast clouded skies, shots of the wind weaving its way through fields, and the continual seasons at first appear obvious but are used to such an extent that they envelope you in the sense of man’s mortality that is so central to the film.
As to be expected with the tale being told there are violent moments in the film but it is, as in the work of Malick, the shift of focus and pace, the small details and the slow unfolding of time where nothing but waiting occurs, that creates the beauty of this film. We see characters not so much defined by the heroic or cowardly nature of their actions but by the nervousness of their reaction to their moments of ‘downtime’.
We know what is going to happen in this story but, in fact, we get closer to the characters through observing them waiting for the stage to recall them from the wings where they have been accidentally observed as nothing but themselves.
Added to the marriage of fantastic performances and great use of beautiful landscape photography is a wonderful soundtrack, from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, with moments of pastoral lightness and tension that perfectly mirror the film. It is a soundtrack which, like Ry Cooder’s Paris Texas, or Yann Tiersen’s Amelie, is so integral to the film that it can be listened to without the images and throw you straight back into the world of the film. In true Western form, Cave makes a pretty acceptably sloppy cameo as a bar singer.
The film has not been without its problems and the release has come about a year after the original intended date. The structure of the story gets a little strange towards the end. Like so many films these days, you get the impression that the director’s cut would be a lot longer and that for commercial release the film loses its balance when shortened. At 160 minutes the film is still an epic, and much of the intended pacing, so crucial to the success of the film, remains. It is not often that you get to see such a great mix of structured drama, performance and landscape cinematography, threaded with a great score. I did have that rare feeling of going somewhere for a long time and a disappointment often more akin to finishing a great novel, at having to surrender that visited world at the end of the final credits.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford opens in the UK tomorrow, 30 November.