“Look at my red hands and my mean face…and I wonder ’bout that man that’s gone so wrong.”
In 2007, there were a trio and widely released films that were mind bending, making audiences think long and hard about what they were watching, were visually stunning, and challenged the usual fare that graces commercial markets. In a way, ’07 was a swan song for what the film industry was, when small and large studios produced moderately budgeted, epic dramas that stylistically, would usually be released in art house cinemas.
Two of them – There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men – received critical (Blood is widely considered to be the best film of the decade, No Country taking Best Picture in 2008) and commercial (both has budgets of $25 million, with the former taking $75 million at the box office, and the latter taking $171 million) acclaim, but the third- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, directed by New Zealand born, Australian raised, international newcomer Andrew Dominik – was adored by a few, but received only lukewarm reviews when compared to the other two films and took only half of its $30 million budget at the box office. In recent times though, it has become Dominik’s cult masterpiece, spawning a revival screening (some of which have had cast and crew members in attendance) movement.
The three films not only show genre and stylistic similarities, but are also closely interrelated in terms of themes. All are tales of greed, power, and violence in desolate regions of the United States, locations where secrets and wrongdoings are easily hidden but victims are easily sought out; in a moral grey area, where Daniel Plainview can build a massive oil empire by conning others, Llewelyn Moss can discover a massive satchel of money at the site of a disastrous drug deal, and Jesse James can build his murderous gang.
But while close in themes, Jesse James differs from the rest of these related works. It is mostly meditative, has short, infrequent spurts of violence, in contrast to the bold soundtracks and countless lengthy, tension filled scenes of a violent cat and mouse chase with a terrifying, complex weapon. The personalities at the centre of the film are no less overbearing though – explosive, hot headed, and obsessive.
Before the film even reaches the characters though, the first thing that a viewer will notice is the photography (’07 was a year of awesome cinematography!). The edges of the image are slightly blurred when we are looking through a certain perspective, leaving only the centre clear, as though we are looking through the ‘window to the soul’, that is, an eye. It is constantly changing though, becoming clear when it’s an outside view of an event. The colours are soft, earthy, and muted, creating an organic, fantasy-like vibe, evoking the senses.
As to whose fantasy we are witnessing, it is certain that it is that of the timid, slimy, almost ‘nerdy’, borderline sociopathic Robert Ford, who’s obsessed with Jesse James, knowing every detail about him, and just wants to get into Jesse’s infamous gang. Casey Affleck is perfect in the role, a similarly nervous, pouty, moody, and downtrodden creature to Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood, a gaunt character whose sly, simpering smile is enough to make your skin crawl. He’s an outsider to the gang, ridiculed by Jesse, his similarly timid, nervous brother who breaks under pressure, but is not fascinated with Jesse, getting the job.
There is a well analysed, interesting dynamic between Jesse and Robert (I was thinking “what was with the homoerotic tension” the whole time haha), which Roger Ebert describes as a dangerous, “curiously erotic dance of death…moving towards the end with almost a trance-like inevitability”. As the unrelenting, dark eyed, scheming Jesse, Brad Pitt is awesome, supported by a remarkable cast of supporting players, all of whom you’d recognise. The cast is uniformly strong, particularly Affleck and Sam Rockwell, who play the most awful liars ever so masterfully that you can almost see the sweat dripping off of them.
The long, lyrical, meandering structure enforces the mythical vibe to this almost non-linear tale that is presented like a campfire story or an epic novel. Each ‘chapter’ sets the scene for a new setting and time, starting with a shot of nature to orient the viewer with the change of seasons, poetic and breathtaking.
Jesse James is a film of admirable scale and ambition, one that isn’t afraid to linger on moments to allow the audience to ponder them more. Its slowness is slightly lost on me this time, but it’s a film that will grow stronger in the future with further consideration, as it is dense and almost overwhelming. From Roger Deakins’s cinematography that makes every shot look like a postcard (that coffee cup shot is one of my favourites, I love how they focussed on that instead of his face in that moment), to the episodic structure and captivating performances, it’s an easy film to appreciate, but not one I currently adore. Jesse James is a portrait of a cold-blooded killer, of mistakes that can’t be hidden under powdered snow, the dangers of obsession, of a meek outsider, and one I hope continues to find a loyal group of fans to celebrate its achievements.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford received a limited release in Australia in November 2007.
MA (strong violence), 153 mins.