The Rear-View Mirror: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James, as played by Brad Pitt, is a canny creature. He observes the nervous, deferential Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and sees a fanboy, though one whose adoration and longing could easily turn into something else, something darker. If you can’t be your hero, what can you do? You can depose him. You can kill him. Continue reading

The first rule of Fight Club

So, I’ve been rewatching Fight Club. (Best way to listen to commentary tracks? Work out while you’re listening to them. You’ll feel like a fit couch potato.) I still think it’s a very funny, very clever and extremely well made movie. But one thing about it tends to annoy me… and that’s many of its male fans.

So many guys I know who like the film buy into Tyler Durden’s fashionable nihilism and reactionary chic. They see the film as a critique of a society that brings forth the silly, ridiculous “Let’s all grouphug and cry into each other’s t-shirts!” self-help groups and subscribe to the “You are not beautiful, unique snowflakes” existentialism that Tyler preaches.

Bob. Bob had bitch tits.

But, essentially, is there much of a difference between the fight clubs and the self-help groups? Aren’t both basically places where people come together, feel sorry for themselves and their lot in life (perhaps even with justification) and then make each other feel better by either hugging each other or beating each other? Aren’t both simply schemes to make you think “Yeah, there’s others out there who feel like me?” The guys who join Tyler’s clubs are losers, and they think that beating each other up and being about as nihilist as a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt turns them into men.

“We’re still men.”

“Yes. Men is what we are.”

The only real difference (apart from the blood and snot vs. tears and snot, depending which brand of self-help group you prefer), it would seem to me, lies in the ideological veneer that covers either. But those guys who think, “Yeah, that Tyler is cool, we’re not beautiful and unique snowflakes, consumerism sucks, and I’d quite like to beat someone’s face into a pulp, because that’ll make me a man” – I’d say that a lot of Tyler Durden’s joke is on them. If you have to beat someone up, or be beaten up, to feel like a man, if you have to demolish coffee shops in order to feel you’ve got a sizeable penis, then good luck finding new teeth.

Rock bottom, and lovin’ it!

What’s in the box?!

I’ve thought before that Al Swearengen would make a good shrink (if shrinks took to stabbing their more annoying patients or slashing their throats, that is). I now think that the Indian head in a box he’s got might do an even better job; at the very least, it’s doing a great job of calming down Swingen’s temper. Or perhaps it’s gleets that do that to you.

A man and his head

I have to admit though that I wasn’t too keen on “Childish Things”, last night’s episode of Deadwood. There was something off about the writing and some of the acting – somehow it felt more like someone trying to imitate the Deadwood style and not quite managing. I wonder whether that’s also down to the director, Tim van Patten, who’s done quite a lot of Sopranos but no Deadwood. Added to which he directed some of the weaker episodes of the late, great HBO mobster series.

Still, there was a lot to like or even love about “Childish Things”. There was the gripping scene between Francis Wolcott and Joanie Stubbs in the darkened front room of the now defunct Chez Amis. (One of the things that make Wolcott so fascinating is that you really never know what he’ll do next. He doesn’t seem to know himself, and there’s this subtle trace of sadness at his own ignorance in him.) There was the priceless scene where Dan finds out about Al’s favourite rotting head-in-a-box. There was the moving scene where Charlie Utter confesses to Wild Bill’s grave just how worried he is about Calamity Jane. And there was Ellsworth sweet proposal to Alma Garrett.

But damn, boy, Bullock and his wife ought to go and see a marriage counsellor real soon. Who knows, perhaps Al and his amazing head could give the two of them a good talking to…

P.S.: No points for those who guessed what film the title quote is from. Anyway, perhaps you specifically need an Indian head to get the positive effects; Gwyneth Paltrow’s may have more of a “Must shoot the smug bastard several times and then go bonkers!” effect on people. Or at least on Brad.

What’s that? Jennifer Aniston?

Western promises

The title should already give it away: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not the kind of movie you watch in order to find out what happens at the end. If that’s why you go to the movies, don’t see this film. If you tend to use the words “pretentious” and “artsy” fairly often when talking about films you didn’t like, don’t see this film. If slow equals boring when it comes to movies as far as you’re concerned, don’t see this film. If you’re hoping for gunslinging action, don’t see this film.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

However, do see this film if you want to see a beautifully written and shot, psychologically fascinating, immensely atmospheric and deeply sad movie, and especially if you’re interested in good acting. Down to the last part, The Assassination has an impressively talented cast; for instance, even the few scenes that focus on Garrett Dillahunt’s Ed Miller (I’ve been a fan of his ever since watching Deadwood) tell volumes in themselves. But the film stands and falls with the two title characters, and they both carry their share of the load with distinction. I’d only seen Casey Affleck in the Ocean’s Double-Digit films, where it’s difficult to judge his acting, but his Robert Ford is a complex, riveting creation: in turn wheedling, puffed up, disturbing, pathetic, deluded, but finally truly tragic, he’s a relative of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley. At one point James asks him: “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” Their relationship recalls that of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) in Anthony Minghella’s movie, but it goes further than that. And Ford’s longing, loathing looks at Jesse James carry so much.

I must admit that I am also becoming quite the Brad Pitt fan. I used to think that he was a star, but not much of an actor – and there are films where you need stars. It was only in Babel that I recognised he could play a part that was in no way that of a movie star. In that film I forgot for the first time that he’s a pretty boy, and I saw him as the character. The star quality is back in The Assassination, but it needs to be – Jesse James is a myth, so Pitt has to portray that facet of the character – and it’s made deeper and richer by Pitt’s performance. This quasi-mythic outlaw is also a paranoid, superstitious and at times cruel and petty bastard, and he’s got a deep streak of self-loathing. When he turns his back on Ford for the last time to wipe the dust of a picture, we’re basically seeing a suicide at least as much as a murder. While James is no Christ figure, Ford is as necessary as Judas to complete the narrative – and to some extent this is because James lacks the courage himself to end it all, nor to live on. It’s by no means clear whether Robert Ford is really the coward that the title suggests.

I don’t want to go on too much, because otherwise this blog entry will rival the film in length. If you don’t mind slow, long films, if you don’t mind portentousness, if you think that the western genre can do tragedy successfully; if you don’t mind hearing the same three pieces of music repeated frequently (and they fit very well), if you don’t mind artsy choices in the photography, editing and writing. Or simply if you want to see Nick Cave hamming it up with a guitar in a Brad Pitt movie. If any of these apply, go and see the film.