April’s film was Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen (which I read by the way and I can say that the film is incredibly faithful).
Although the film has been nominated for 2 oscars (Best Supporting Actor – Casey Affleck, and Cinematography – Roger Deakins), it did not receive much recognition by audiences and flew under the radar. I was unaware of the film until my friend who caught it at his local art house theater told me it was amazing. I bought it on DVD about a year or two later and was blown away.
Let me begin with the cinematography. That year Roger Deakins was nominated twice for the same category (also for No Country for Old Men) but unfortunately lost to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood. The vast fields of the old west and the sepia tone of the film gives it that old time look, reminiscent of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, particularly Christina’s World. The night time photography of the railroad robbery is just breathtaking and describing it in words would not even do it justice.
Reading up on the film, I found out that Deakins and Dominik created a specialty lens to create that tunnel-vision blur on some of the shots for an antique camera-look. Also the use of silhouettes and slow motion is brilliant, really adding to the enigmatic quality of Jesse James. The production was really able to breathe new life into a genre that is considered practically dead with, ironically, stunning new visuals to recreate that old feel. According to incontention.com, Deakins is quoted as saying,
Andrew said he wanted to create a Victorian Western, and he had a lot of visual references, from photographs to paintings and stills from other movies. But this was the 1870s, kind of late for a western. Jesse James was around at a time when the west was really changing; he lived in an area that was bustling. And Andrew wanted to get across that notion of change.
However, visuals alone cannot carry a film. Jesse James is also very well acted. Casey Affleck delivers a brilliant performance as Robert Ford, changing from the green and enthusiastic fanboy to the resentful and dangerous man. Brad Pitt is haunting. I never thought he would pull off such a great performance but I guess this is where his experience as an actor really comes through.
The film also challenges the western genre of pacing which is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is more a character study than a standard narrative. The film really savors its moments with Jesse James, where at first glance it seems like something will happen but nothing really does… or did it? The scene where Jesse and Charlie are by the frozen lake and Jesse starts shooting at the fish swimming below comes to mind. There’s a poetic quality to these moments in which Dominik forces the audience put pieces of a puzzle together to discover an answer.
Jesse James’ motivations are ambiguous but they make sense. In other words, Jesse’s subtext is always there but never decipherable. We, the audience, are just as confused as the characters that interact with Jesse when he arrives at their individual houses. However, we also know just as they do, that there is a deep, underlying reason for it which may or may not surface. It seemed to me that he was searching for repentance and reflecting on himself through his journey to find his old gang. The journey itself is a soul searching attempt to come to terms with himself as a human being. The voice over narrates that he had no regrets for the people he has killed but is it true? The moment of his death could be read otherwise; a very Le Samourai moment of catharsis. The ultimate redemption, perhaps? This is what is so beautiful, I find, about the film is that Robert Ford, who practically apotheosized Jesse James slowly begins to realize that he is no more human than any of us. He is not a cold blooded killer and highway robber but a man who cries and takes care of his children. A man of mystery, yes, but a man nonetheless and a troubled one at that.
One of the best of 2007, it is sad that this film got overshadowed by other great films. I could go on and on about how wonderful it is but if you haven’t seen it already, I hope this has inspired you to check it out. It made it on the “top 10 lists of 2007” of many film critics.
As a final word, it’s interesting to think about how similar and different Jesse James’ death is compared to Osama Bin Laden’s death. Jesse, a rebel outlaw, went on to become a legend and folk tale of American culture, I believe, simply because his death was nostalgic of the old west. As Deakins said, the film takes place during a time of change to the modern era and we as humans always want to hold on to fleeting moments of the past. Osama will undoubtedly go on to be forever known as the evil terrorist mastermind but who knows how he will go on to be perceived in his own country, or the world, as history plays itself out.
On April 22 (at 6:50 PM) at the BAM, Benicio Del Toro will make a special appearance for a Q&A session for a screening of Kaneto Shindo’s The Naked Island. All proceeds to this will go to the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund so it’s also for a good cause. Tickets are $25. The BAM has great events and I’ll try and post some more events from this venue from time to time.
From the BAM site:
As part of the series The Urge for Survival: Kaneto Shindo, BAMcinématek is pleased to present this special benefit screening featuring a Q&A with Benicio del Toro. Proceeds for this special screening go to earthquake relief in Japan and no senior or member discounts or free admissions apply.
A landmark of Japanese cinema, Shindo’s cinematic tone poem about the life a poor family of farmers on a rocky atoll in Japan’s inland sea was made without a single line of dialogue. “The eloquence with which a movie can be made to convey, without words, the qualities of strength and endurance locked in the lives of human beings is manifest again, with fine simplicity.”—The New York Times
For April, I decided to pick an American film that I feel is underrated. Ok, ok, so it stars Brad Pitt and Casey Afleck got nominated for an Oscar for his performance but, strangely, not a lot of people have seen it. I think April is a perfect opportunity to check it out! Also, check out the great Roger Deakins’ artistry in his image making (he was also nominated for an Oscar). The film is a tad long but it’s worth it. One of my favorites of 2007.
Michael Peterson a.k.a. Charlie Bronson is often referred to as the “most violent prisoner in Britain” and is the subject of Nicholas Winding Refn’s arthouse film Bronson, March’s film selection. The film explores, and ultimately ends with, Peterson’s evolution in to Charles ‘Charlie’ Bronson, a man who eclipses the person he originally was both in character and size.
Michael Peterson was initially sentenced to a seven-year prison term for committing robbery, his sentence ends up being stretched out due to what authorities see as his violent tendencies but we, the viewer, are given a peek in to Peterson’s head and know that his behavior is due to his desire to remain “a star.” We follow Peterson’s life from his formative years in Luton, England to his current residence, prison.
There were many things I enjoyed about the film but the lead actor’s performance stuck with me the most. Tom Hardy (of inception fame) portrays the title character in a way that is startling in it’s lack of fear. Shots jump from Bronson delivering soliloquies to scenes of him literally trapped in his own body while condemned to a mental institution to shots of him bareknuckle-boxing prison guards while greased up and nude, etc.. These shots are filled with color and noise that are completely visceral and set to a soundtrack of 80s synth pop that, which not while incredibly subtle, highlights the dichotomy between what you are viewing and what you are hearing and only serves to heighten the viewer’s experience. Refn has you and knows you won’t look away from what he has put on display and much like the aforementioned film scenes, Hardy’s performance is similarly engrossing and manic.
The film does not end on a happy note and if you are looking for an upbeat film I caution you not to rent this one. In the end there is no redemption, and Charlie wouldn’t have it any other way.