Thursday, 20 December 2007
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Despite the telegram of a title this film review really does contain Plot Spoilers, y’heah?
Bundling in a bonus, Brighton’s Duke of York’s cinema started the programme with a short interview with director Andrew Dominik. Dominik quietly but audaciously compared his film to a pearl-string of fin de siecle Western classics such as Heaven’s Gate or Pat Garrett, then topped the whole thing off by adding Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon!
Not only does Dominik beat the odds and pull off these comparisons, I’m going to up the absurdist ante and liken proceedings to Pasolini’s Medea. Filming both the myth of and the sordid truth behind Jason and the Argonauts’ exploits, Pasolini didn’t so much juxtapose them as superimpose one on top of the other. Similarly Domink will portray the James gang as an agglomeration of squabbling kids, his inlaws swaggering under his big brotherly protection, while simultaneously pushing the James myth of romantic outlaws to centre stage. The paradox centres on the second, lesser-known name from the title – how much does Ford by the end believe in the James myth, and how does he imagine himself relating to it?
The judgementalism fixed into the title is hung up like a signpost in the wind, to be battered and swung by the film’s two-and-a-half hour running time. The Jesse James song (the one most of us know via the Pogues) is used in a similar way. Ford takes a not unexpected umbrage at being so described but, in a delicious moment of ambiguity, insists there were only “two, not three” James kids his gun left hungry. Told in advance to expect the title’s single act, we contend to try and read meaning out of it. In fact the film contains a recurrent motif of characters spying on or observing one another, lying on mattresses or in bathtubs, like everyone’s perpetually trying to figure one another out.
“Jesse groomed Bob as the man who would kill him” asserts Paul Whittington in the Irish Independent. Certainly, by the point James presents Ford with a handgun his mind’s made up, and he’s figuring he may as well make sure to get it from a decent shooter. However, to read that throughline back throughout the film seems overly schematic, when a film as languid as this needs more nuances. James’ mind seems rarely made up, but as volatile and extreme as Amin’s in Last King of Scotland, veering between jocular gang pappy and paranoid schemer – sometimes in the space of a sentence. He plays mind games with the others, and also with himself. James riding up could mean anything from your share of the loot to a calm but lethal bullet to a psychopathic rage, and maybe he hasn’t decided himself till he pulls up.
We view him through the somewhat imperfect lens of Ford, as something as inchoate and inscrutable as the moody Missouri skyscapes that fill the screen. A devotee to the point of being a groupie, Ford memorises trivial details such as James’ shoe size as a displacement from his inability to get into James’ head.
Moreover, though Ford may serve as our protagonist, he’s scarcely any more cohate than James. If James is subject to wild mood swings, Ford is barely formed – hence the youth’s desire to cling to others like flotsam to a rock. Even after taking the mission to kill James, even after accepting the gift of the murder weapon, Ford wanders James’ house like a stalker – drinking from the glass on the dresser for no reason other than James did. (However, when James asks “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” it strikes a rare bum note. It feels far too expository, spelling things out for the cheap seats.)
Nevertheless as James sees his Old West habitat disappear, and as he serially dispatches everyone from his gang, his own death-wish grows and his mind does fix on displaced suicide. (The films full of late Autumn/ Winter settings, as if everything’s coming to a close.) However, in doing so he outsmarts Ford one final time. By presenting the kid with the easy target of his back, he condemns Ford to be forever associated with him – but only in the way the film’s title directs. (Though ironically, “back shootin’” seems James’ favoured method of execution throughout.) Even when we see Ford stagily re-enacting events before a theatre crowd, he doesn’t dramatise or alter these squalid facts. Ford only finally becomes like James when facing his own assassin, he stoically accepts his bullet. That’s the only ending this story has in it.
The film’s critical plaudits are largely deserved, but Whittington’s opening castigation of the popcorn-eating crowd strikes at something that worries me more than the usual snobbery. By watching a film wherein the West ends, where James or Billy the Kid bite the dust, they imagine by some act of sympathetic magic the Western as a genre will be brought to a close. It reminds me of the ‘death of the superhero’ hyperbole that swept comics criticism after Watchmen, something that wasn’t true either. But it’s still more absurd here, as the act of faith asks us to forget how many times we’ve been here before. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was released in 1962, after which a whole host of old-time outlaws have been gunned down without ever staying dead. Like cowards in adages, the Western can die a thousand times if it needs to. These days, (in Whittington’s phrase) “anti-Westerns” seem almost as common a sight as straight Westerns.
Nevertheless, there has been a shift of which this film is a part. Liberty Valance sparked a host of elegiac swan songs, to a splendid era now over. (Its famous phrase “print the legend” didn’t mean the Old West was a mere legend.) Time was, men could be men. Its only now they can’t. Here the mood is not elegiac but melancholic. When Ford exults over the pulp accounts of his exploits, James casually dismisses then as “all lies”. Here there was no era of gentleman outlaws, just a whole load of trouble getting stored up. Ultimately the film’s focus is not history but identity, where a self-perpetuating legend is merely identity taken to grandiose excess. Whichever side of the Ford/James equation you pick, the picture’s no rosier. One builds his own cage, the other steps inside it anyway. When James tells Ford “look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong”, how much is he setting Ford up and how much is he giving his last confession to his chosen recipient? For Sartre hell was other people. Here it’s yourself.
(Nerdy postscript. After seeing Casey Affleck as Ford, I’m convinced he’d make a much better Spider-man than Toby Maguire.)