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

Would you kindly…?

My apologies for the posting delay – I was laid low the last two days with a stomach bug. I’m still home from work, but now I have no more excuse to dawdle… So here, without much further ado, the latest entry. I promise not to throw up while writing it.

I’ve been re-reading The Sandman from beginning to end. About a month ago I got the last of the Absolute Sandman volumes – gorgeous hardback large-format reprints of the original comics, with tons of extras such as additional stories in the Endless universe or scripts of some of the most important issues.

Yes, I know, I'm a book fetishist.

This is probably the fourth or fifth time time I’m reading the series in its entirety, and I still have the same favourites: A Game of You (vol. 5), Worlds’ End (vol. 8) and The Kindly Ones (vol. 9 – more on that later). However, Brief Lives (vol. 7) has grown on me, especially the last few chapters. I’m still not all that hot on its art, but the storytelling is fantastic – Gaiman at his finest – and it’s pretty much the volume when Delirium comes into her own.

I’m currently halfway through The Kindly Ones, and even at a fifth re-read, it still packs quite a punch. I love the art (which some found too cartoony – but I definitely prefer it to the more generic comic-book art of some of the other volumes, even though they all have their inspired moments), but even more, I love how Gaiman manages to bring together dozens of threads from the previous volumes in clever but not ostentatious ways. He makes it all feel natural and, as in all the best tragedies, inevitable.

Imagine him brushing his teeth (and flossing) and he'll get a lot less creepy...

There are a number of things that in the hands of a lesser writer would feel like fan service, especially the return of the Corinthian, or indeed the extended scenes with Mervin Pumpkinhead. But what Gaiman pulls off is something that few series (in any medium) have managed so far: reading The Kindly Ones, you get the impression that he’s always known where he was going. And you want to follow him, even though you know it’ll all end in tears.

I haven’t been all that hot about most of Gaiman’s work since The Sandman. His recent short stories, and indeed his novels, have seemed too twee, too enamoured with their cleverness. There are always great bits, but in between those bits I feel I’m reading some Gaiman imitator who does an okay job but simply isn’t the same. Fragile Things was a shadow of Smoke and Mirrors (which contains some of my favourite short stories). Anansi Boys was fun but pretty forgettable. I liked Coraline a lot, though – perhaps Gaiman tries too hard to be clever and Gaimanesque when writing for adults, and when he writes for children he simply focuses on telling a good story. Which, in Coraline, he very much does.

Talking of Gaiman: this animated short reminded me of him – most of all because Nick Cave’s narration sounds exactly like some of Gaiman’s readings:

youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uj4RBmU-PIo]

It’s called Deadwood… What did you expect?

Okay, I know that there’s at least one reader out there who hasn’t seen Deadwood season 2 yet and is planning to do so. This is where I tell you, very politely, to come back tomorrow, lest ye read a spoiler.

Still there? I’m warning you, there be spoilers!

Well, that’s about all I can do. If you’re still reading, well, I won’t take any responsibility. So there.

Yesterday evening, after two middling episodes of House, M.D., we watched the pen-penultimate episode of the sophomore season of Deadwood, aptly entitled “Advances, None Miraculous”. In it, we were reminded (after several episodes that seemed to suggest differently) that Al Swearengen can still be the scariest mother****er in the Valley of Death, if he wants to be. And all without drawing a weapon.

We were also shown that when he needs to be, Sol Star is just as much of a badass. After seeing Al frighten Mrs Isringhausen – not exactly a shrinking violet herself – into signing a piece of paper, accepting $10’000 and getting the hell out of Dodge in a brilliant piece of Al-manship, we get Sol telling him in his face that he won’t stand for bad Jew jokes. Now that takes a pair… or stupidity, but I’ve always thought of Sol as the intelligent one in the Star-Bullock friendship. (Except occasionally, when he’s led by his privates rather than by his brain.)

None miraculous

However, the emotional centrepiece of the episode was the protracted death of William Bullock. It was quite heartrending to see Sheriff Bullock face a crisis that he can’t beat down with his fists. William’s dying was a moving counterpoint to the political wheelings and dealings about the coming annexation of Deadwood, affecting everyone in their own way.

Talking about affecting: I’ve gone on at great length about The Assassination of J.J. by the Coward R.F. before. Yesterday I made the mistake of checking out the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack of the movie on Amazon.com. The dark, subtle elegiac tunes (or rather the 20-second clips that Amazon plays for free) got to me to the extent that I felt the pull of the movie all day afterwards. Tunes like “Rather Lovely Thing” or “Song for Jesse” wormed their way into my heart, making me feel sad for semi-fictional characters long dead for hours.

P.S.: When I read who’d composed the music together with Nick Cave, I had this momentary vision of the writer of Transmetropolitan scribbling darkly sentimental tunes on some sheets in between writing another tasteless, hilarious, biting chapter of his near-future satire. For all I know, it is the same Warren Ellis. Then again… No. Probably not.

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.