Sunday, October 21, 2007


Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to BE me?THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is, alongside 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS, the best film I have seen at London 2007 so far, and one of the best films I have seen all year. And this comes from the reviewer who had read so many bad reviews that she was expecting to walk out after an hour and grab lunch with some friends. But to my surprise, I found myself riveted by this sprawling three hour contemplation of the final days of the infamous outlaw and the nature of his infamy. Every scene is a visual delight; every performance of the hightest quality. Casey Affleck establishes himself as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood; Brad Pitt's every glance spreads fear. And in its final scenes, writer-director Andrew Dominik of CHOPPER fame shows that he has a profound understanding of the nature of celebrity and the kind of mob culture that can turn Princess Diana into an icon.

To start at the beginning, how do you make a new and interesting film about one of the most notorious figures of the Wild West, when his life story has already been analysed and re-analysed, his corpse photographed, lithographed, and his name checked in rock songs, rap songs and more besides? Dominik confronts this head on with the style and structure of the film. For a start, we never see Jesse in his hey-day, robbing trains with his original gang. It is assumed that we are already impressed with his reputation, and Brad Pitt has so much charisma that he pulls this off. Dominik also subtly contrasts the scenes that flesh out the received wisdom with the "real" psychology of the story. We have a narrator and a series of scenes which could have come from a penny-comic or a stub on Wikipedia. These are shot with a convex lens that keeps the centre of the frame in focus but blurs the edges, analagous to a sepia tinted portrait.

But Dominik's biggest innovation is to place Bob Ford centre stage. Bob has that dangerous combination of arrogance and insecurity. He believes he is destined for great things but he's desperate that no-one will give him a chance to show his greatness. Much like Thomas Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf, Bob Ford is in love with his hero Jesse James to the point of wanting to BE Jesse James. But Jesse is in no position to return that affection. For a start, Bob Ford's hero-worship is creepy, putting Jesse's wife on edge. Ford is also the butt of everyone's jokes and hardly a serious contender for the role of "side-kick". For another, Jesse James is now at the end of his career and paranoid about being double-crossed. He wouldn't trust anyone, let alone a young pup whose love could easily turn to contempt, hatred and finally murder. Casey Affleck's performance as Bob Ford deserves an Academy Award. It's subtle. Every stifled grimace at humiliation shifts him one step closer to killing the man he loves. Brad Pitt is also good as Jesse James, but has less to do. The performance is one-note but is no less impressive for that. He has to show how a folk-hero can become so dogged by being on the run and mis-trusting his colleagues, that he can choose to lay down his weapons and offer his back to a man he knows will kill him. The supporting cast is more of a revelation. In particular, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner are very good as members of the gang.

Other than the performances, the other key reason to watch this movie is the superb cinematography by the Coen Brothers' regular DP, Roger Deakins coupled with the production design by Lynch regular, Patricia Norris. They combine to simulatenously un-do all the things we expect from Westerns. Rather than a classic Western fought in dusty scrubland and grimy saloon-bars, the modern exemplar of which is 3:10 TO YUMA, the majority of this film is shot in snowy fields and clean, stark, well-kept houses. The costumes are clean and spare, as is the crisp early morning light. Combined with the leisurely pace, the movie almost feels like a Terrence Mallick flick.

All in all, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a triumph of cinema. It's a movie in which I would change not one single thing: a pantheon movie in the making.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD played Venice, Toronto and London 2007. It is already on release in the US, France, Israel and Belgium. It opens in Germany and Spain later in October and in Australia, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and the UK in November. It opens in Singapore on December 27th and in Japan on March 15th 2008.

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