In cinematic times past, particularly during the dominance of the auteur in the 1970s, the line between commercial filmmaking and artistry was blurred if not invisible. As much as I deplore reactionary film criticism, it is undeniable that before the proliferation of special effects and digitally assisted technology, audiences were more content with just a good story, solid characterisation, or suspense than they are now. Sensory engorgement – be it with effects, rapid editing, or the scale of carnage or coarseness – is now a prerequisite for a major box-office take, and while some financially successful films of quality manage to use that facility to their advantage (The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix, for example), the divide between consumer-oriented and creatively-focused filmmaking is very wide.
Consequently, prestige films must either have a small budget or straddle this barbed dividing line with supernatural skill in order to warrant a studio’s investment. Projects that attract a sizable budget of $30 million or more must often go rogue if a filmmaker’s vision is to ever be adhered to. Granted, the studios are making a sizable investment and do deserve input, but it is still tempting to rage against the fiscal mindset of the typical studio executive when we long for their philanthropy, as tragically naïve as that sounds.
But over the last year we’ve received several films of quite sizable budget that could never be expected to be box-office kingpins, to the point where one is unsure whether to thank the studios for taking a chance or just be grateful for whatever delusions they were under that such films would satisfy their shareholders. Zodiac, Southland Tales, The Fountain, The New World, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men are mid-range budgeted films so contemplative, esoteric, or both that they could only have been greenlit for the respect they would garner for their studios rather than the cash.
But such inquisitiveness feels risky, as if by acknowledging such creative fragility in film circles we are exposing it to destructive scrutiny. Regardless, we should be thankful that such films are being made at all. The truth is that while blockbusters are indeed largely getting worse, there are still enough films of significant quality made each year, either on a low budget or as recipients of studio largesse (or perhaps insanity). To argue that films aren’t as good as they used to be does have basis, but at the same time such people need to pipe down. There are plenty of good films if you just look for them.
Which brings me to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film from that lovely limbo where lucrative studio expectations are tossed into the wind for something more timeless. Screenwriter/director Andrew Dominik has followed up his dynamic Australian true-crime flick Chopper with a Western that isn’t really a Western at all. Given that the studio reportedly wanted their $30 million Brad-Pitt-as-wild-west-legend film to be a more visceral, epic, Unforgiven-style affair, they were understandably miffed when Dominik delivered a meditation on celebrity and hero worship where the two main characters are crazy and maladjusted. Cue a two-year delay allegedly beset by requests for cuts and the staunch resistance of Dominik and producer/star Pitt. The director has intimated that they won and that he endorses the final version, although the film has consequently been dumped in a limited release pattern despite the jubilation of a number of critics. This is a case where film lovers should grin manically and run into the theatre while they can, gleeful at the filmmakers’ gall, because in this case Dominik and Pitt have run the gauntlet and emerged with a masterful film that may eventually be considered a classic.
As quietly confident and audacious as Chopper was, it did not suggest that Dominik was capable of a film this elegant and poignant. Despite sharing the theme of fame and whether it is misguidedly awarded, Chopper was such a cynical and grotty film, albeit deliberately, that Assassination’s majestic emotional heights are surprising and even more breathtaking to behold. Although he is working from a very well regarded 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, Dominik’s film seems to transcend adaptation to become something else entirely, a haunting visual document that grabs verbatim chunks of the novel in voiceover form and then sprints away to portray history in a soulfully perceptual and tactile way unique to cinema. Assassination is far more dialogue-driven than the works of Terrence Malick, but Roger Deakins’s stunning, evocative cinematography creates brooding yet beautiful landscapes that stand with the best of Malick. Dominik’s measured depiction of immense and often harsh vistas shares Malick’s contemplation of the natural world as being both alien and entrancing.
Jesse James’s story has been dramatised plenty of times before, but Assassination focuses on the twilight years of his criminal career, beginning with his last heist and then turning deeper in on itself to explore the claustrophobic paranoia that the legend of Jesse has caused in the man himself. Lifelong James enthusiast Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) seeks to become a member of the gang after his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is hired, despite having no aptitude for such misdeeds. Bob is an unsettlingly sycophantic creature, but one motivated by love and respect rather than malice. The unwieldy title (which Pitt’s contract stipulated must remain unabbreviated) is crucial in its entirety since the film is about the simplification that fame and infamy enforce on complex events, and takes pains to illustrate that while Bob can be neatly summed up as a creepy guy – as older brother Frank James (Sam Sheperd) deems him on first meeting – there is far more to him. The assassination scene itself is breathtaking for many reasons, not least of which for the torment in the Ford brothers’ faces as they contemplate the inevitability of what they are about to do, while also being overwhelmed with confusion as to why it has fallen to them to do it.
The whole cast delivers career-best performances in a meditative film that gives them room to spread their wings. Much has rightly been made of Casey Affleck’s revelatory performance, which cements him as a formidable and versatile talent where before he was merely a bit player. He absorbs Bob’s complex layers of self-loathing and projects them outward to just the right degree, so we can still speculate as to what lurks beneath. Pitt is excellent as ever, and since this is his passion project he delivers particularly strongly. He exhibits more subtlety than ever before, his expressions often very nearly hidden but letting just enough show to pack a punch. Jesse becomes increasingly unhinged through the film, and Pitt conveys it without resorting to the manic intensity of his 12 Monkeys and Fight Club performances. Jesse’s own legend is a strait-jacket around his self-expression, and his battle with his own identity prevents him from such freedom apart from occasional outbursts of hysteria that are far more unnerving than anything else in Pitt’s career.
The duo has a magnificent supporting cast, with Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner particularly strong as two James gang members. There is a twenty minute interlude in the middle of the film when the two stay with Renner’s father and his very young wife which is blessed with such a natural segue that its peripheral nature only occurs to us partway through. Schneider sells Dick Liddel as a seducer with a conscience, while Renner’s Wood Hite is a powder keg that we don’t think to monitor until it’s too late.
Many critics have argued that the sequence is overly indulgent and irrelevant, and perhaps it is. But while not overtly tying into the film’s larger thematic goals, it is a seductive and haunting piece that brings to mind the plantation scenes in Apocalypse Now Redux. I can’t dismiss the argument for its removal, but it is an agreeable sin in a film that otherwise justifies its nearly three hour running time. The sensual and entrancingly slow pace makes this film what it is, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Also excellent are Rockwell and Deadwood’s Garret Dillahunt, whose two scenes with Pitt are absolute dynamite, and would have made me wish that he had been able to play his original role of Charley Ford (a TV commitment prohibited him) if Sam Rockwell wasn’t so affecting in the part. Rockwell typically plays an in-control oddball, but here he successfully breaks away from the mould with a loyal brother determined to keep a sinking ship afloat, and his expressions and gestures before the assassination as he realises what must be done rank among the actor’s very best work.
Unfortunately, the female cast members are barely seen, with Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel afforded scant screen time despite their accomplished résumés. Were their scenes among the few that Dominik still had to cut? Or is this a film principally concerned with exploring masculinity and the relationships between powerful and powerless men? This is such a sensitive film that a sexist motivation on Dominik’s part seems incongruous, although the characters make no secret of their misogyny. Ultimately, Parker’s background presence works to the film’s advantage. Like the other female characters, she haunts the periphery until her agonising outburst upon discovering her dead husband. As this previously stoic woman is filled with grief and rage, Bob realises that the male power struggle he has just resolved has claimed other victims, and our dim awareness of her vital presence comes painfully into focus.
But despite this focus on the men, Assassination is not a boy’s own film. It is focused on universal issues and told in such a gentle and non-exploitative way that it is clearly not aiming for gun-loving male Western fans. Dominik uses the distance of the West to analyse how the corruption of fame is not a 20th century innovation, and that its costs are not limited to the age of mass media. Plus, it is yet another successful example of a legend being deconstructed without being robbed of its power, replacing the gun-toting hero with altogether different and more sinister masculine ideals. However, Jesse James himself clearly cannot live with what they turn him into, and so the blatant title becomes ever more elliptical. Is it an assassination? And who is the coward?
Even on the terms that Dominik set out with, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been a noble-minded failure. But despite all the setbacks, he has made a film of great and lasting calibre. Although not perfect, it stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of other films in 2007, and must be seen on a big screen to savour both the cinematography and the ambience that Dominik conjures with a surprisingly wordy movie. This is a film that will transcend its current niche audience and enter the conversations about great films as the years pass.