Friday, February 22, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ***1/2

Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck
Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel

"Now or never is your chance. If you don't get him now he'll get you tonight."
from Robert Ford's letter to Governor Thomas Critteden (April 1882)

A film that reveals its plot in its title must have something else up its sleeve. Andrew Dominik's sophomore film is a meditative look at the last days of the outlaw gang led by Jesse James (Pitt), but it is also a raw look at the sinister double moral that served as foundation for the American myth.
The film is set in 1882 where James' reputation has become so vast, that it's making it impossible for him to work without fear of betrayal.
The government has put a price on his head and the members of his gang have become fearful that Jesse will doubt them.
Among them is the young Robert Ford (Affleck) who joined the gang after a life long adoration of James. Under his bed he has a cardboard box filled with Jesse James memorabilia which is object of constant mock from his brother Charley (a great Rockwell).
Robert develops a love/hate relationship with his hero that gives path to his eventual betrayal, powered by pressure from the governor who recruits him as a double agent of sorts.
While the film takes its time taking us there (its languid pace might very well evoke the empty feeling of dread held in those days) it sets points along the road which make the experience feel like so much more than historical trivia.
Pitt has rarely been better than in his unflattering glorification of a man who at one point becomes smaller than his reputation. The actor's unusually beautiful features become enigmatic when the camera concentrates on his slow weathering. The moment that Pitt decided to play James like a normal man, who had an outlandish job, was when his performance became so profound. Driven by anger, violence and a fear he can't hide for long, one has to wonder what made him so fearsome.
Affleck is a revelation whose battles take place inside his head. From the beginning of the film he has a creepiness to him that is only bigger than his admiration for Jesse James. In one of the film's best moments, Robert begins counting all the similarities he and Jesse have. His conviction and shy excitement are terrifying and moving at once, which is why the film establishes a huge dilemma that Ford has to carry.
When exactly did the murder of a criminal becomes betrayal? By film's end, Ford has become infamous, instead of heroic.
The supporting cast creates a more full portrait of the era including a pervy, eager and complex performance by Schneider, a giggling anxiety filled Rockwell and Parker who as James' wife, in a role with almost no dialogue, effectively states gender politics of the era.
The parallels drawn between those early times and our constant public bashing of celebrities we have put on pedestals couldn't be more appropriate or disturbing.
And what better way for Dominik to make his point clearer than by using the American genre by excellence?
This revisionist western dissects the concepts that made its genre rise as a questioning of the system. By the time depicted in the film, the wild west had given path to industrial progress and the characters are also caught in a limbo between playing by their rules or those the world is imposing on them.
Gorgeously shot by Roger Deakins, the film feels like an eye into the past. Deakins' amber palette and unfocused edges recall the stereoscope pictures of which Jesse James' corpse would become an icon.
Filled with melancholic beauty and decaying urgency, the visuals sometimes speak more than any line of the script and their manipulation as means to fit into a contraption (whether it be a stereoscope or a film projector) only make us more conscious of human nature's irrevocable fade out.

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