Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford d. Andrew Dominik, 2007

After seeing My Blueberry Nights - and, yeah, cribbing plenty of notes from Matt Zoller Seitz's (as always) whip smart words - and then seeing TAoJJbtCRF (should that b get capitalized?), I'm struck by the idea of the moment, of mood. MZS writes:

Wong Kar-Wai's films aren't just intoxicating; they're intoxicated. They deploy slow motion, fast motion, freeze-frames and other visual flourishes not to highlight pivotal narrative moments, but to italicize feelings -- some sorrowful or profound, others fleeting, playful, sensual

and then:

In place of a Syd Field-approved three act story, My Blueberry Nights offers a series of moments (some pivotal, others fleeting) in the lives of various, tangentially unrelated characters. The moments are threaded together via the experiences of a New York coffee shop waitress named Elizabeth (Norah Jones), who tries to get over a breakup by living and working in other cities, witnessing and/or participating in other characters' dramas. But Elizabeth's experiences less a dramatic through-line than an emotional echo chamber: a means for Wong to simultaneously explore one character's self-reckoning and a second character's reaction to it.

I'm not entirely sure that My Blueberry Nights succeeds, but its blueprint as viewed by Seitz - a series of moments and emotions threaded together by experience - is the great movie at the heart of the very good movie that TAoJJbtCRF is.

Simply put, the narrator hobbles TAoJJbtCRF. In what could have been an excellent scene, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) plays the chameleonic flaneur, essentially living, through James' garments, accoutrements, and things, the life of Jesse James. The visual narrative is coherent without being obvious, subtle without being abstract, but the V.O. operates as a sort of play-by-play announcer, describing for the impaired the image on screen and - this is the dealbreaker - ascribing concrete meaning to that image. The V.O. plays exactly what the film is not: a poor biographer.

A good biopic - Capote comes to mind (and not to say that the film at hand is necessarily a biopic, but the biographical elements are the same) - paints in (wait for it) the medium of moments and moods; it simply presents, without presenting judgment. (Actually, and clearly, this is the stuff of good storytelling and quality characterization period - good films pretty much always operate in a liminal space.) And this is exactly what TAoJJbtCRF does when the voice over is absent. Perhaps a bit too heavy on the young-man-peering-despondently-over-the-countryside trope, TAoJJbtCRF presents portraits - vignettes, really - of Jesse (Brad Pitt) and the sundry members of his gang. Only one hold-up is portrayed in the film, and even that is shrouded in mystery, hardly the clear procedural of the usual filmic robbery, train- or otherwise. The forthright title is routinely questioned in the film - was it cowardice that drove R.F. and was Jesse James such a monumental figure that his death deserved to be called an assassination? - so much so that the coda, in which the honor and character of Robert Ford is explored, is fully deserved. That is, deserved if one forgets the V.O.

Sans voice-over, TAoJJbtCRF resembles very much a Terrence Malick film or, digging into the archives of the western, Peter Fonda's excellent The Hired Hand. The pathos would be a bit unbearable at times, but the excellent cast, visuals, and script would more than make up for it. Instead, with the narration, the film splits itself in two, attempting to appeal to both the art-house set and Oscar-driven populace, satisfying completely, I imagine, neither.