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!
In the opening sequence of For A Few Dollars More, a man rides a horse along a canyon in long shot, while we hear musical whistling. A shot rings out, and the ant-sized man drops off his horse, dead. During the entire opening the man lays there, dead-on centre screen, while the credits roll.
The man doesn’t talk much. Mostly he smokes his cigarette and looks out over the untamed land. He’s come as part of a group planning to harness nature, to bring electricity and industry to these apparent outskirts of civilisation – one of several men who never question their right to be where they are and take what they want – yet he stands apart from them. They are not his tribe. He rides a horse into the small town where the natives eye him, not quite knowing what to make of the man. They don’t share his language and he doesn’t understand theirs, but that’s unimportant. Perhaps it’s even the point. The frontier feels like home to him.
It is 2017. The frontier is the Bulgarian-Greek border, and the man is one of several German construction workers employed to build a hydroelectric power station. The film is called Western – a surprisingly apt description for a surprising movie.
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.
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.
Just a quick post to complement my “Hello world!” entry. Me and my ladylove just watched Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. I’d forgotten just how much Leone indulges in the sheer, unapologetic over-the-top grandiosity of his movie. The style’s so easily recognisable and even more easily parodied, it shouldn’t work… but it does. Boy, does it work. It’s archetypical, operatic, and oh-so-watchable. If you have time (and have seen the film before – I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for you otherwise), check out this video, containing the entire showdown:
Leone’s way of building up tension until it’s almost unbearable, and then releasing it in short bursts of violence, is masterful. I’ll definitely have to get my girl to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly with me one of those days…
(Having said all this, though, I must say that Leone’s sexual politics, in this film but even more in Once Upon a Time in America, are pretty hard to swallow these days. I mean, check out this quote: “You know what? If I was you, I’d go down there and give those boys a drink. Can’t imagine how happy it makes a man to see a woman like you. Just to look at her. And if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it.” Yeah, right. The guys out there in the sand have worked hard, so they’ve earned the right to paw you. Sure, no prob…)