3 February 2008

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD - The Greatest Western Since Unforgiven, and that was 1992

I had somehow managed to miss this remarkable film because Warner Bros had real problems pushing the film into cinemas for a wide release which on reflection it should have been given, but like most of the best films, The Assassination of Jesse James is a film that will be rediscovered on DVD. I don't know where to begin with the beauty, power and grace of this masterpiece, and it is a masterpiece precisely because it transcends genre limitations and becomes something uniquely cinematic and breathtaking in it's emotional range.

Produced by Brad Pitt with Ridley Scott, this film more or less confirms the artistic credibility of Brad Pitt who has always been overlooked as a performer. His portrayal of the outlaw and civil war renegade, Jesse James, is Brad Pitt's finest performance to date, and though critics have tended to focus on the brilliance of Casey Affleck, I feel many have overlooked and undervalued Brad Pitt's steely and multi layered performance, as he makes the figure of Jesse James enigmatic and impenetrable.

Much has been written about the protracted production history of this film and it is safe to say that the vision that the Australian director, Andrew Dominik, had in mind and also the final length is very much evident in the film which is something that must be complemented. I suspect the reason why the film has not been tampered with by the studios is largely to do with the people involved with the project, names like Ridley Scott and the famous Western producer, David Valdes, all have a reputation for being fiercely independent and protective of their work. And it also helps greatly when you have a powerful star like Brad Pitt who has become increasingly committed over his career to making films that are both entertaining and didactic.

The film itself recalls the early work of Terence Malick, particularly alluding to the lyrical and memorable imagery of Badlands and more strikingly, Malick's masterpiece, Days of Heaven. Like other great films, The Assassination of Jesse James is a piece of cinema which successfully manages to bring together the original and established contributions of many artists like Cinematographer Roger Deakins, the much maligned Hollywood actor, Sam Shepherd, and finally, the evocative and haunting musical composition by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which brings an added dimension to the film. It has also been a long time since I've heard such an effective use of a voice over in a film and Andrew Dominink's screenplay has been written with a vivid and consistent level of detail and clarity that works to support Deakin's muted imagery.

The Assassination of Jesse James, No Country For Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma, There Will Be Blood proves how viable and relevant the Western genre is today for audiences and producers.
Apart from 3:10 to Yuma, which is the most mainstream of the bunch, most of these films have not done exceptional business at the box office, but nevertheless they have all made valuable contributions to the recent development and reinvention of a genre which Hollywood needs to have more faith in when it comes to making films which can be deemed respectable works of art.

The film opens with an incredibly poetic montage of imagery which picks out the figure of Brad Pitt as Jesse James, images which we have seen before but in films like Gladiator and Days of Heaven, yet Dominik manages to make them appear fresh and vital on the screen. Much can be said of the unusual narrative structure that the film adopts, and though it would be easy to re title the film as the rise and fall of Jesse James, the narrative provides us with minimal action, steering clear of typical western conventions. Whatever claim Brad Pitt may stake to this film, it is a film which is very much about the anonymous stranger and coward, Robert Ford, and like the best revisionist westerns, the film seems more fascinated by the marginal characters which have always made the genre so interesting and captivating for audiences.

The steady rise of Casey Affleck as A list actor who should be taken as seriously as his peers like Matt Damon and his older brother continues in earnest with his multi layered portrayal of Robert Ford. Affleck's notable performance represents a repellent Robert Ford as a sympathetic and greatly misunderstood figure within Western mythology. Much has already been said about how the film plays upon the real life celebrity image of Brad Pitt and it is interesting to see how Casey Affleck's Ford is positioned by Dominik as another obsessive fan who entertains notions of fame and recognition. The freeze frame has become probably the most hackneyed technical device used by Hollywood films today, re appropriated by the Hollywood new wave from the Nouvelle Vague in the 60s.

This is the first film that I have seen in a long time which uses the freeze frame in an unforgettable way as it appropriately immortalises the figure of Robert Ford, something that alluded him all his life. A magnificent and towering achievement and one of the best westerns of the last ten years for sure.

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