The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

[Note: Here’s another sampling from the “olden days”—of my review for a movie that should have been, but sadly wasn’t, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.]

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost as long as its title, but it may be the most valiant attempt at truly literary filmmaking in a while. It is a film that earns its elegantly archaic photography (shot by Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ frequent cohort) and, perhaps, its slow deliberation over each and every frame. Although the setting is long past—in what remained of the Old West by the 1880s—the movie goes beyond the acceptance it may have had as simply another handsome period piece; it’s surprisingly relevant today.

The film opens with the last train robbery perpetrated by the James gang. It is here that Deakins is at his most indulgent; the dreamlike, fuzzy-edged cinematography is at an apex, pairing the sumptuousness of Terrence Malick films with the blurry decay of old photos. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), an awkward 19-year-old raised on Jesse James (Brad Pitt) dime-novels, insists that he take part in the venture. Jesse’s father—and later his wife—get the creeps from this naïve teenager, but the boy is admitted, nonetheless, and, on the train, he gets his first taste of Jesse’s temper: an engineer who refuses to kneel down before the bandit is bludgeoned mercilessly.

Bob never gains the respect of the rest of the gang, which Jesse picks off one-by-one by for acts of treason against him. By the end, only Bob and his dim-witted older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), remain. Bob idolizes Jesse, but he’s like a fanboy who meets William Shatner and then realizes that the Starship Enterprise has never lifted off the ground. His first-hand experience is nothing like the cheap romances that he still keeps hidden in a shoe box under his bed. The true Jesse James is lunatically violent and paranoid; in one scene, he almost tears off a young boy’s ear when pumping him for information, but, by covering his mouth, never even gives the boy an opportunity to reply. The movie, however, has the decency to not peg the icon as simply a raging monster; at the end of the scene, the celebrated outlaw breaks down and cries.

The film is just as much Bob’s as Jesse’s, though. Charley forces an anecdote out of his brother about the long list of comparisons Bob has compiled between himself and Jesse; when his hero—who constantly tests his minions’ allegiance—mocks him for this, the railway bandit’s fate is sealed. The titular assassination makes the perpetrator as well-known as the victim—just as he always dreamed—but his celebrity is tinged with infamy and allegations of cowardice. Jesse James, the romanticized brute, is immortalized as a folk hero; his slayer becomes a folk villain.

It is either remarkable fortune or the sign of pure genius that Brad Pitt, arguably today’s most established male star, performs the role of an over-hyped tabloid celebrity of yesteryear. He does not need to be Brando; as the mercurial, mysterious James, he needs his star’s presence—and, costumed in black and sporting the smile of a charming roué, he gives James the larger-than-life power that made him a myth. (In a nod to one of James’s successors, he slips into an impersonation of Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow from time to time.) But he culls the right degree of sensitivity, too, in a much practiced performance. Everything that James does is minutely tooled; he’s blasé about his celebrity, but thrives on living up to his reputation. His alpha-male instinct for self-protection eventually drives him mad and Pitt plays James as a troubled existentialist, whose unpredictable bursts of malice are intertwined with moody desperation. James’s fate has the weight a tragic hero’s; his own eccentricities lead to his downfall and the lives around him collapse like dominoes.

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No Country for Old Men

[Note: Now that No Country for Old Men is last year’s Best Picture, I felt I should post the review I wrote way back in pre-Oscar times. Warning, there’s a spoiler.]

Until the end credits, there isn’t one bar of music in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. In fact, the bulk of the first third of the film is as visually empty as the soundtrack; it’s Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas, 1980: beautiful in its bleakness—untamed, unpopulated. The photography, by the brothers’ longtime associate, Roger Deakins, is always sumptuous, but it works better here than in most of their films; this film needs to be implacably picturesque and distant—the world of this movie isn’t quite real, not quite full.

The story follows around Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) who, on a solitary hunting trip, stumbles on the remains of a mass execution of drug dealers in the desert. We never figure out much about them—and neither do the police—but they were certainly the victims of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a merciless killing machine. Moss is the kind of man who thinks of himself as a modern-day cowboy, but, in actuality, is just a Vietnam vet whose “home on the range” is in a trailer park. He is so deadpan that his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), doesn’t believe him when he remarks off-handedly that the valise he’s brought back from his hunting expedition is loaded with cash. Moss does not realize, however, that his cash came equipped with a tracking device. After Carla Jean is safely away with her batty mother, Moss finds himself playing cat-and-mouse with Chigurh. Though he’s no Rambo, the vet is resourceful; his laconic understatement makes him the perfect foil for Chigurh, the latest word in sardonically unfeeling inhumanity. While not perfect, Moss is scrappy and not easily frightened; he acts the way we’d like to think we would in the face of robotic evil.

And then he’s killed off.

As the trusty old sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, Tommy Lee Jones enters into the movie relatively late. Dealing only with Carla Jean, he’s practically a bystander, never directly involved in the A-plot, only watching from afar. Jones’s character is a particular specialty of the Coens—like Frances McDormand’s cop in Fargo, he’s old-fashioned, glib, and utterly straightforward. On the surface he may seem like a typical Tommy Lee Jones part, too—his Man in Black without the zazz—but he’s not. Ed Tom Bell is outmoded. Like the rest of the Texans here, he’s tough and reserved, yet older enough to think he’s seen it all. But he’s never seen anything like this.

In the beginning, his understatement makes him seem as dead as the deathly flat landscape, but there’s something in him that dies later on. (And Jones lays it to rest gracefully.) Like all cowboy heroes, he has to be internalized and stoic, but he, like Moss, is out of his league. Unfortunately, that seems more troublesome than any of the graphic murders Chigurh commits; are the Coens really saying that mechanized evil (a single-minded clockwork orange) has rendered traditional American goodness obsolete? This apocalyptic revelation leads Bell—a sheriff so old and craggy that the bags under his eyes couldn’t be taken as carry-on—to finally retire.

One may be led to think that No Country for Old Men is a tract about evil, but the evil embodied by Bardem’s character is rarified to the point of absurdity. He and his motivations are more primitive than any of the other characters. I can only recall one shot from the entire movie that might lead one to believe that Chigurh is layered: his reaction when he realizes that Moss has the gumption to fight back. Bardem’s portrayal is quietly effective, but one-note; he’s too much of an allegory to be believable. Chigurh lacks a past or even a context. He’s menacing, but too far removed from the reality of evil to be rationally feared. The Coens are talented enough to ratchet up the suspense in ways that befit such a proficient thriller, but Chigurh is a monster better suited for horror films.

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