Talking Movies

December 3, 2019

From the Archives: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The Western Revival may well be killed off by Brad Pitt’s boring art-house epic. Seriously, after Seraphim Falls and 3:10 to Yuma things were looking good for the genre but as Alexander was to sword and sandals flicks so is The Assassination to Westerns. Andrew Dominik’s second film (following acclaimed Australian crime biopic Chopper) was flagged as a Terrence Malick style western. We were cautioned not to expect shoot ’em up action but instead lovingly photographed landscape and dreamlike narrative, characters musing philosophically with copious voiceover. All of which we get. There are some wonderful Malickesque moments, such as a dreamily off-centre train robbery which is all reflected lights through trees and fog, the problem is there’s no substance behind them.

Towards the end of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 Hunter S Thompson described the phenomenon of ‘Campaign Bloat’, when the press corps suddenly realised that the American Presidential Campaign had changed the minds of a negligible number of voters, therefore the last of year of their lives had been pointless. After 158 minutes audiences will feel the same about Jesse James. It trashes the film in retrospect to realise that, having followed the Ford brothers and the rest of the James gang through a long, bloody winter as Jesse becomes increasingly paranoid that one of them is going to betray him, Dominik had absolutely no point to make. This sense of drift afflicts Brad Pitt’s performance as the depressed, lonely and physically ailing Jesse James. He repeats two exact mannerisms which he did as Tyler Durden in Fight Club which emphasise the hollowness of his performance, which doesn’t come close to Chris Cooper’s turn in Breach as a man doing wrong who just wants someone to stop him, as it’s hinted is James’ motivation for conniving at his own killing.

Casey Affleck, so good in The Last Kiss, does a fine job of portraying the turn from naïve hero-worship to resentful hero-killing of Robert Ford but his role is badly underwritten despite his epic amount of screen time. That’s saying something given that the film could justifiably be re-titled The Adventures of the Ford Brothers and their Killing of Jesse James. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, as the other halves of Jesse and Robert respectively, hardly appear and serve no purpose when they are onscreen. Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner are good in support as Ford’s brother and James’ cousin but the demythologising presentation of them as country rubes and inglorious violent criminals is defeated by the film’s attempts, after the ‘assassination’ finally takes place, to remythologise Jesse James as a noble outlaw. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s atmospheric soundtrack carries the film for a long time but in the end even they can’t save the meandering emptiness.

2/5

September 5, 2012

Lawless

Director John Hillcoat reunites with his The Proposition screenwriter Nick Cave for another brutally violent piece of period film-making about savage brothers.

Virginia in 1931 finds the real-life Bondurrant brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy), Jack (Shia LaBeouf), and Howard (Jason Clarke) thriving in the wettest county in Prohibition America. Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging looks understated by comparison with the Christmas tree appearance at night of this locale as illicit stills fire up to make liquor with the full conniving permission of the local law. A tough federal agent Rakes (Guy Pearce) arrives to stamp out bootlegging, or rather restrict it to those who pay off the new and viciously corrupt DA. Local legend Forrest is unwilling to do so, and, being reckoned indestructible, doesn’t think Rakes can force his hand. But when Rakes declares war Maggie (Jessica Chastain), the new waitress at the Bondurrant diner, and Jack’s polio-stricken friend Cricket (Dane DeHaan), as well as Jack’s girlfriend Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) are more vulnerable targets…

John McGahern said that fiction operated under the burden of having to be plausible, when life could be as implausible as it liked because it was real. Despite being based on a true story it is implausibility that sinks this film. What appears to be a huge shock killing, in a scene worthy of The Godfather, transpires to be a truly bizarre refusal to shock. The finale is then marred by the equally unlikely survival of another patently fatal injury. Cave inserts some delightful touches in the soundtrack, listen for the bluegrass version of The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’ sound-tracking a bootlegging montage, and his interesting collapsing of time with the new preacher’s flock, who could as easily be a flock from the 1860s, is reminiscent of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. This film’s problems, however, largely stem from his screenplay.

Lawless is inhabited by ciphers rather than characters. Jason Clarke’s Howard is totally undeveloped, while an oddly-made-up Guy Pearce is underused as a psychotic dandy. Gary Oldman’s gangster Floyd Banner really only has three scenes, as if his sole purpose was to remind us, with a machine-gunning scene and a good rant, that Oldman used to be the crazy villain of choice once. Hardy’s character is given to grunting rather than talking, and, while Hardy actually makes this expressive, it leads to a ridiculously gratuitous scene with Jessica Chastain which feels like a dramatic jump-start for a romance Cave couldn’t be bothered to write. And that’s before the film loses interest in Forrest in favour of young Jack’s attempts to both romance the preacher’s daughter Bertha and outdo Forrest in the bootlegging stakes with the help of his friend Cricket who has an unexpected talent for souping up car engines…

Lawless prioritises unrelenting violence over character development and leaves very good actors trying to flesh out characters the script has left un-nuanced.

2.5/5

Blog at WordPress.com.