Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
Why do studios hate good movies? Okay, I know the answer is that good movies don’t necessarily mean profitable movies. But still. Studios don’t seem indifferent to challenging, new movies. They actively hate them.
Case in point: Last year, the consensus best film (Children of Men) was buried by Universal. The ad and PR campaign for a stunning vision of the near-future is about what you’d expect for a brand of generic toilet paper. They had made the thing, apparently they didn’t think they could market it to teenage boys, and so they dumped it into theaters to wash their hands of it.
It’s happening again this year. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is easily one of the best films of the year, only you probably don’t know it, because Warner Brothers obviously never believed in this film. Why can I say that with such certainty? Well, besides the fact that there’s been almost no TV or print ads and we haven’t seen the usual flood of “journalism” that greets a movie starring Brad Pitt, this movie sat on Warner Brothers’ shelf for over two years. When that happens, people think the studio has a colossal turkey-fuck on their hands and doesn’t know what to do with it. Depressingly, these days, it might just as well mean that they’ve got a masterpiece that didn’t test well with random people who went to a test screening at a mall in Sherman Oaks.
Jesse James is a very difficult movie to describe—and I mean that as a glowing compliment. It’s a Western, of course, and you pretty much know the plot when you read the title. But I’ve never really seen anything like it before. It’s a Western only in this sense that the best Westerns of the 70s were Westerns—movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Once Upon a Time in the West) that took a familiar old genre lying around and used it to make something familiar but totally unrecognizable. The easiest comparison is to say it’s like Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, only if you combine the languorous pacing and keen period detail—which immerses you in what it might have been like to live at that time—with the underlying dread and tension of a gangster flick like Sexy Beast. It’s a long movie—somewhere around two hours and forty minutes—and the longer it gets, the more you hope it’ll never end.
It’s pretty easy to imagine the reason the movie sat on the shelf for so long: the Philistine movie execs demanded that relatively powerless writer/director Andrew Dominik (who’s only other credit is the Australian movie Chopper, which incidentally is the movie that brought Eric Bana to Hollywood’s attention) shorten it up. The movie is long, but it needs to be long. Not only because it’s a tragic epic, but because the electrifying style that Dominik discovers in the movie is one where long, strange pauses are what makes the thing work.
This movie is truly an actor’s paradise, and it’s easy to see why Brad Pitt (whose company produced this and whose star power obviously got the thing made in the first place) was attracted to it. Pitt’s James is like America’s first celebrity. He’s basically John Lennon in the last days of his life to Casey Affleck’s Mark David Chapman. Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, a shifty-eyed, awkward young man who grew up worshipping the outlaw image of Jesse James in dime store novels. Pitt plays a Jesse James who knows about the large price on his head—both literal ($$$) and metaphorical (killing Jesse James means going down in history). James is the kind of guy who has had to live with eyes in the back of his head for so long that every interaction he has with any human being besides his wife, kids, and brother are fraught with paranoia. Are you going to be the guy who finally does it?
He’s a great movie character, deliciously complex. James has lived with this paranoia and pressure so long that part of him longs for death, and he seems to latch onto Casey Affleck as the guy who’s so hungry for fame that he just might be the man to deliver it. And yet that other part of James—the killer who outlasted all the other outlaws—won’t let himself go down so easily. So James starts seeking out all the old members of his disbanded gang. They’re all terrified of him—with good reason—and under the auspices of friendliness he studies their faces and reactions for beats that feel like eternities, catches them in lies and half-truths, lets them twist on the end of his stick, until he pretends it was all a joke with tension-deflating laugh. But the tension never really goes away.
Pitt is basically the straight man to a bunch of guys who are simultaneously drawn to and terrified of him, and the low-level members of his gang get the really juicy roles. It all comes down to Robert Ford (Affleck) and his older brother, played by Sam Rockwell. Both performances are magnificent. Affleck plays the soft-spoken youngest member of the gang who always gets picked on and made fun of. That he’s a ticking time bomb of resentment and ambition is obvious to everyone except the people around him. Sam Rockwell plays the kind of peacekeeper character who’ll do anything to pacify Jesse, even if it means humiliating his brother or even himself.
All this is brought to us with gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins (who also shot this fall’s No Country for Old Men) and a script by Dominik—based on a novel by Ron Hansen—that’s full of totally believable period dialogue. I don’t know how Dominik—an Aussie—got so good at recreating the country twangs of Americans who don’t even exist anymore (though I read that he says he read a lot of the letters people wrote to each other back them), but the dialogue feels so authentic you can truly lose yourself in the period being portrayed.
This movie has gotten fairly good reviews, but not the raves it so clearly deserves. It’ll take time for this film to find its audience and its place, but have no doubt that it will. Long after people give a shit what an old movie’s opening weekend grosses were, when they want to watch a riveting, one-of-a-kind Western, this will be one of those they’ll pick up.