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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The title The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford seems to say it all. That's a simplification. A look at the emotion and instability leading to heroic action, it's an emo-fying of the Western-genre tradition. That's not all that brings this adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel near masterpiece status: It's one aspect of its smart approach.

The three-dimensional darkness and light textures from Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins create images that need the big screen. Watching this movie on a laptop would be akin to ice skating on a fish tank. Director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) exposes shades of virtue and deceit on a large canvas.

Part of the edge comes from the audience being placed in the footsteps of the "coward." Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford as a sycophant—his awkwardness accentuated by an unwelcoming toothy grin. Ford's interest in being the sidekick to American outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) moves from hero-worship to gay infatuation to hatred. He wants to be like James so badly that he'll kill him.

This take on celebrity-obsession is relevant, even though it's set over 100 years ago. When Ford's need for validation from his hero isn't met with support, it turns into an equal thirst for James' downfall. This has parallels to the public's enthusiasm over Britney Spears's breakdowns—not acknowledging that they helped create the Britney Spears monster.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford strips the genre's machismo down to uncontrolled feelings. Dominik takes a perceived hero and coward and uncovers the tragedy in them.

Across the Universe

Maybe Julie Taymor's theatre background keeps her overlooked on lists of notable female filmmakers. Across the Universe is good only in pieces, but those glimpses of what might have been make it a work of value.

Drawing from The Beatles' catalogue for a musical about 1960s idealism, Taymor's pop-music set-pieces have a free-spirited energy. Because Taymor hasn't cut her teeth on music videos, the kinetics of these numbers feel unique. An Asian girl sings "I Want To Hold Your Hand," travelling lost in a daze toward her object of desire, while a high school football game turns violent around her in slow motion. Teenagers embrace underwater to "Because." A singer and her guitarist duel over preferred rock styles in a concert rendition of "Oh! Darling."

Taylor's visuals aren't as evocative of time and place as the black-and-white images in the upcoming Joy Division drama Control. But her mobile camera is good at capturing the fantastical, and the reality of '60s working-class life. Like this year's relative disappointments from David Cronenberg, the Farrelly Brothers and Wes Anderson, the bulk of Across the Universe hasn't the certainty to back up its best scenes. It's usually unclear what the characters want to happen by the film's end.

Unless you're one of those weirdos who thinks The Beatles' songs hold answers to everything, the way their meanings are contorted to make a story out of an era feels forced. The film tries dramatizing a conflict between a people's zeitgeist and their government, then skimps on story--between sometimes amazing musical numbers.

You say you want a revolution? Email palermo@thecoast.ca.

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