Give me a two-and-a-half-hour-plus movie that is slow paced, highly aesthetic, well acted and psychologically intense, and I’m going to be a pretty happy camper.
I just re-watched just such a film, one I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is now among my favorite films. Andrew Dominick’s 2007 adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel of the same name plays very much like another of my favorite’s—Terence Malick’s 1975 film, Days of Heaven.
I like them both for the same reason: their formal elements together are far more interesting and engaging than the plot itself. There’s no mystery here—not even much suspense—Jesse James is going to be killed by Bob Ford, who he has taken into his gang at the end of the gang’s long, bloody career.
Formal elements (the shot, the production design, editing and sound) only have value if they express the director’s narrative intent. They must articulate theme, help construct characters and convey mood. Dominick tells of a 34-year-old Jesse James worn down by his profession. Fear, paranoia, exhaustion burble just under the surface of his psyche as he tries to live a normal life with his wife and child after his last, murderous train robbery in 1881. But that won’t be his fate.
Dominick fought Warner Brothers, who owned the final cut and wanted a tight, fast-paced action film. Dominick’s vision was of a slow, psychological intertwining and unraveling (his cut actually was 4 hours). Producer Brad Pitt (Jesse James) and executive producer Ridley Scott supported their director, and editor Dylan Tichenor obliged the vision (What a perfect hire: Tichenor had just cut Brokeback Mountain and had The Royal Tennebaums on his credits; his next film after Assassination would be There Will Be Blood, which makes Jesse James seem like Die Hard.)
Then there’s the always excellent Roger Deakins, whose cinematography here paints a world closing in on Jesse: natural and low-key lighting; a muted color palette; swirling, dark, close-to-the-ground cloud cover. Deakins captures James’ recurring inner torment with long takes of Pitt looking lost in this world; lost in his thoughts. Lost against the empty expanse of the central plains he had for so long terrorized.
Brad Pitt won the Best Actor award at the 2007 Venice Film Festival; he gave Jesse just the right world-weary quality mixed with a natural ability to intimidate with either a whisper or his rage. But it is Casey Affleck’s performance as a creepy, fawning, psychologically strained Bob Ford that is mesmerizing and memorable. Affleck’s portrayal did win him a few critic and film festival awards and was nominated for an Oscar (losing to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men). This, though, is among the best performances of the past 25 years (up there with Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects and Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight). Playing 13 years younger, Dominick allows Affleck room to express the subtle awkward anguish of a boy of no consequence who has weasled himself into the real life center of his hero’s waning days. Bob Ford means to be a man of destiny; a man who will do great things like the men of the James Gang themselves, whose escapades are captured in tawdry, breathless pulp fiction paperbacks, which he keeps tucked in a worn box under his bed. But this is just the delusional mask he wears, visible only to himself in his own mirror. As I watched Affleck’s Bob Ford become even more introverted and confused, I kept thinking that this is what it would have felt like if Mark David Chapman had somehow talked his way into John Lennon’s band six months before he gunned him down.
Interestingly, Dominick does not spoon feed us a lot of motivation for either James or Ford’s actions. Instead, he allows Deakins and production designer Troy Sizemore to visualize their motives, their reactions. And Deakins and Sizemore’s work is complemented by perhaps the strongest formal element in the film: the score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
I’m listening to it as I write this blog. Its dark cello runs and mournful violins convey the spiraling downturn of James, Ford, their relationship and their times. Its haunting melodies and bells construct both a sense of otherworldliness and impending doom. At some point we understand the unspoken psychological chess match the two are playing, with Jesse setting Ford up to checkmate him.
The “Song for Bob” floats with the “coward” as he roams the country, recreating what he protests was an heroic act (which also happened to net him a tidy reward). The cue plays against Bob Ford’s final years, revealing to me Dominick’s sense that Jesse James and Bob Ford both were heroes and cowards; that Bob Ford, ironically, had to kill the only thing he ever really loved in order to be even mentioned in the same sentence with a man of such great renown. Through Deakins’ fog-filtered images, Cave and Ellis’ sad, ancient score and Tichenor’s deliciously deliberate editing, it is with intended sympathy we share Ford’s own assassination, a voice-over suggesting Ford’s killer did not share Dominick’s perspective.
Made for about $30 million (cheap by today’s Hollywood standards), the film opened on five screens in September 2007 to an opening weekend gross of $147,000. By the following year, it would total about $3.9 million (a financial disaster for the studio and a kiss of death for its director).
It’s not surprising that this long film--told in such lovely dark, slow, broad strokes--would be a box office bomb. The 12-to 24-year-old Hollywood target audience would never sit still long enough for this story to unfold (even with “assassination” in the title), and the “more mature” moviegoer has generally lost their taste for the western genre (though this is hardly one). The hope, no doubt, was that Brad Pitt would be a draw for female audiences, but I guess the pull of Good Luck Chuck (which opened the same day on 2,612 screens and took in $13.6 million that first weekend) was just too much competition.