Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poetry doesn't work on whores.

The thing that separates Andrew Dominik's strange, magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford from the 70's classics it descends from (the revisionist Westerns of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman chief among them) is its unapologetic romanticism. It would be a mistake to describe the film's visual grit and stark narrative as realistic; rather, the film is tinged with a bittersweet nostalgia, as though it were told through the eyes of James' dewey-eyed, adoring assassin. A requiem for a time that never was, The Assassination practically demands the sort of ecstatic, purple praise usually reserved for tent revivals. Suffice to say that The Assassination is film as an ephemeral series of moments made indelible through the prism of memory. It's alien in a way that only a truly modern work is, elegaic and confounding and, for all its obvious cinematic ancestors, a complete original.

"I honestly believe I'm destined for great things," Ford (Casey Affleck) tells us early on, and there's a fatalistic undertow to the narrative. Framed by a Barry Lyndon-esque narrator, the film takes the well-known moments of James' life and stages them through a soft-focus haze, as though the images are emerging straight from our collective unconscious. Out of this fog emerges a Jesse James that, as played by Brad Pitt, is paranoid and haunted in the way that giants are. The notorious outlaw is obsessed with signs and totems, constantly on the watch for possible traitors in his gang of malcontents, struggling with the inevitable. The dewey-eyed Ford, whose worship of James borders on lust, joins the James gang for their last train robbery (eerily staged under cover of night), has his illusions of his hero shattered, and ultimately conspires against him. Dominik presents these two figures as locked in an inevitable twist of fate, James' outsize persona dooming him to a public execution by his most loyal sycophant. This relatively simple story unfolds at a leisurely, meditative pace, yet Dominik's authority over the material is remarkable (particularly since this is his second feature). The god's-eye persepective of the story travels over painterly landscapes that transform almost imperceptably with the seasons as the sounds of wildlife form a constant, indifferent chorus. Rarely has a story of even our grandest icons' insignificance in the face of time unfolded with such unabashed romance.

But for all its high aspirations (it was gratifying to hear Domnik reference Barton Fink, calling his film "a fruity movie about suffering"), The Assassination more than honors its dime-store origins. The violence isn't the operatic bloodshed of Leone and Peckinpah, but Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins (brilliant as always) never shy away from the red red kroovy of a well-placed headshot either. While this is not a movie filled with DTS-charged shootouts, the constant threat of violence creates a superbly sustained tension. This is largely thanks to the two leads - Pitt makes almost imperceptable shifts from folksy humor to animalistic rage, and Affleck (in a revelatory performance) creates an assassin as sympathetic as he is creepy, constantly keeping us off-balance. The entire film is equally well-cast - Sam Rockwell is alternately funny and moving as Ford's brother Charlie, Sam Shepard's brief appearance as Frank James is a smart nod to Malick, and Mary-Louise Parker is stunning in a near-silent turn as Jesse's oft-neglected wife. The irony of the film's immediate reputation as a strange, overlong art movie is that, more than anything, it recalls the grand, outsize entertainments of a bygone era of moviemaking. Like the songs of Nick Cave (who, with Warren Ellis, wrote the film's score), the film is at once sweeping and delicate, lingering in the grey area between pulp and myth.

The Assassination cements its classic status in the stunning denouement, which follows Ford as he makes a living recounting the murder for a rapt audience. Preserved as a coward, Ford repeats the deed over and over, at one point challenging his audience's hypocrisy in attending to judge him. His destruction becomes his immortality, a point Dominik drives home in a breathtaking final freeze-frame. If Ford's cowardice ensures his story's retelling (and commodification), Dominik ackowledges his own role in Ford's fate, and ends with remarkable empathy for a man destined to become the villain in the story he so adores. Awful marketing and the public's preference for the more straightforward 3:10 to Yuma have resulted in Ford's continued marginalization. But, upon viewing the film in a near-empty theater, I found myself transported by The Assassination's visual grace and aching humanity. It's a masterpiece, one that Robert Ford himself would have surely been proud to be a part of.


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