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

Going… going… gone!

First of all, my apologies for not updating my blog for the last two days. Things at the office and at home have been very busy, but from now on I should be able to update (practically) every day for the next two weeks. Promise!

And there’s enough to blog about, mainly the last film I watched at the cinema. Who’d have thought that Ben Affleck is so good at dealing with actors, especially after he didn’t exactly prove himself to be his generation’s De Niro? (Shades of Sophia Coppola, mayhaps…?) Gone Baby Gone is an accomplished first movie, with a brilliant cast and a wonderful set of moral grey areas to ponder for days after leaving the cinema.

Nah… still gone

For the record, I disliked Mystic River (which is also an adaptation of a novel by Dennis Lehane, just like Gone Baby Gone) intensely. I felt that Eastwood’s film at best paid lip service to the fact that many of its protagonist did pretty horrible things, but secretly it felt like the movie was condoning especially Sean Penn’s actions: after all, Tim Robbins’ character has been permanently broken by what happened to him when he was a kid, so a bullet to the head is in effect a mercy killing, even if done for the wrong reasons, right? Several people disagree with me on that reading, but I can’t shake it.

Gone Baby Gone is clearly by the same writer, and it shares many of the same concerns, but it’s more honest in addressing the moral dilemmas its characters are in. Many of the people involved try to do the right thing – but there is no right thing, so they try as hard as they can to go for the lesser of several evils. And the film doesn’t judge, which is quite amazing considering the story that it tells and the environment it’s set in. The Bostonian “white trash” isn’t looked down at or pitied as much as it is simply observed, just like the main character Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) doesn’t judge but simply tries to do what is right himself.

Casey Affleck is almost as brilliant as he was in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was a bit irritated at the voiceover he had at the beginning of the film, because his voice is very characteristic and very specific. Its scratchy, somewhat adolescent quality (“You want fries with that?” – yup, that sort of voice) fit Robert Ford brilliantly, but I associated it with the character, not the actor. As soon as we actually saw Affleck, I was okay with it, though. It’s fascinating to watch his fundamentally decent character trying to figure out what the right thing is. When late in the film he kills a reprehensible character who has done an utterly evil thing, he doesn’t feel good or righteous, as would usually be the case in Hollywood films.

The rest of the cast is as fascinating. Much of the time you forget that you’re watching actors, as there’s something almost documentary about the presentation of the characters. Michelle Monaghan, whom I’d never noticed as much of an actress, makes her character into more of a Girl Friday/girlfriend type; Amy Madigan is as real as always; Morgan Freeman is remarkably short on Morgan Freeman-ness (Freemanity?), his usual, very pleasant style of (non-)acting; and Ed Harris seems to have swallowed Dennis Hopper whole, which is very disconcerting.

However, Gone Baby Gone may be a riveting film, but it’s not the most enjoyable film you could imagine. It’s less ponderous and heavy than Mystic River, but it leaves you with a very ambivalent ending, where those guilty before the law may be punished – but what is legal and what is right in this film diverges quite frighteningly. And chances are that the film will gnaw at your mind for a long time.

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.