The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
AKA: The Assassination of Spike’s blog formatting by a horrendously long title
The first thing which came to mind after leaving ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (hereby shortened to ‘The Man That Gone Done Got Shot’) was what exactly Brad Pitt had to do to get some credibility. Actually that’s a lie, the first thing that came to mind after leaving ‘The Man That Gone Done Got Shot’ was a Keanu Reeves style ‘Whoa’. To say that Pitt does great work in ‘The Man That Done Got Shot’ would be an understatement of epic proportions. But then again, aside from perhaps Thelma and Louise, there are very few films where Pitt isn’t engaging as an actor. His work in Seven, Twelve Monkeys, the Oceans series and Snatch should have garnered him all kinds of accolades, but he’s still viewed as an unknown property when it comes to legitimate acting. He’s certainly not in the league of actors like Ed Norton, but compared to ‘heavyweight’ acting talents like Christian Bale he’s a genuinely great performer. Sadly ‘The Man That Gone Done Got Shot’ won’t do much to change this. Partially because nobody will ever see, but largely because the few people who do see it will most likely be enraptured more by the performance of Casey Affleck as the titular coward.
Affleck’s Robert Ford is brilliant largely because of how loathable he is. We see the film largely from his viewpoint and as such he becomes the natural protagonist within the movie, but he’s never likeable. His character changes immensely through the narrative but in doing so he evolves from one deeply unlikeable character to a different kind of unlikeable character, however he remains utterly fascinating throughout. It’s hard to take your eyes off of Ford when he’s on screen, even at his worst there’s magnetism to Affleck’s performance which is almost prenatural. Pitt tries his hardest and his performance as James is well thought out and superbly acted, but it’s all artifice when compared to Affleck. Ford feels like a real character, every nuance feels natural, feels deserved, Pitt is stuck with a more classical acting job and as such is at a natural disadvantage.
Given that the film is essentially an origin story, Ford is the more malleable character; James has to meet certain restrictions for the story to work. Which isn’t to say that Pitt does a bad job, he’s absolutely electric as James. Charming, funny, disturbed, noble, vicious, paranoid and manic all at once, he’s the embodiment of a man on edge and he nails the role completely. But the role is that of cipher, we’re on the outside looking in a lot of the time and as such all we’re left with is the surface. The few times that James really gets to bare his teeth show how incredible an actor Pitt is, but they’re too far between to match Affleck’s continually nuanced performance.
It’s hard to believe that this is only Andrew Dominik’s second feature. Whilst his first film, the incredible ‘Chopper’, showed a great new talent few could have realised his next film could be called a legitimate masterpiece. Working with the utterly fantastic cinematographer Roger Deakins (IMDB your favourite recent films and he’s probably been the director of Photography) Dominik creates the kind of lush, precise, visual poetry you’d attribute to a far more seeded director. ‘The Man That Gone Done Got Shot’ bears all of the hallmarks of veteran filmmaker, on a thematic and purely textual level it seems far beyond someone with so ‘little’ experience. And yet the film barely stutters in its impeccability. The only points of contention being the few times a point is hammered home a little too soundly. I’d have a lot of issues with the narrator (who overstates and overemphasise stuff which is perfectly fathomable from the onscreen actions) if not for the fact it’s a) so well done and b) potentially another element of the film which is messing with the audience.
Told with the kind of growling purr usually used to describe how awesome and traditional Jack Daniels is, the Narrator is shown to be massively unreliable from the opening monologue. The Narrator, for the voice belongs to no character and seems a little too good old boyish to be god, describes how James has a rare condition which makes him constantly blink. This piece of information is shown over a shot of Jesse James vehemently not blinking, and in recollection I don’t think he blinks during the entire film. In a film about tarnished iconography it’s easy to assume that the narrator is a representative of the American conception of Jesse James. Still heavily romanticised and as far from the truth as you could possibly get.
At first I thought that not being embroiled in American culture would make the deconstruction elements of the film a little harder to get onboard with. I mean how can you successfully appreciate a deconstruction of a character who was never really constructed in the first place. Thankfully the direction from a non-American (and based on this Dominik is probably the second greatest Kiwi export ever) sort of helps this transition, it becomes about ideas rather than specific people. We’re given enough information about James to understand how he fits into the American iconosphere. He’s part myth, part legend, part outlaw, part freedom fighter. Ford and the Narrator serve as the perfect conduit into the iconography of James, although we perhaps see the cracks in the character a little too quickly for the effect to be truly perfect. Watching James turn from his friendly, charming persona into his almost demonic self when he robs a train is a shock to the system but it’s all incumbent on Pitt making us lower our guard.
That’s the paradigm at play in the film, the story is about the deconstruction of myth but the visuals are almost dreamlike in their quality. The soothing sound of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score combining with the cinematography to give an epic, hyper natural quality to a film which is all about getting down to the nitty gritty of an idea. And it works wonderfully; I doubt there will be a film this year which is quite as lush and deep as ‘The Man That Gone Done Got Shot’. There are scenes in the film which are just simply stunning, breathtaking works which show the medium at its grandest. The opening train robbery is a thing of beauty, transcendental in its staging, ethereal in its visualisation and haunting in its iconography. A later scene where James discusses death with Ford’s older brother Charlie whilst he shoots at the frozen river they’re stood on is so deep and so textually rich that you could write a book on it alone.
It’s a product which is almost too good to be true, a truly deep and invigorating piece of work.