Tonight we sat down and watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford.*
Lisa was firmly of the opinion that the movie, weighing in at two hours and forty minutes (approximately the same amount of time it takes to write the title out longhand), was a good hour too long for the actual amount of story there was.
Normally I’d agree, in that any movie that drags out a fairly thin slice of narrative past the two hour mark will start to make me itchy all over and I’ll have to take a break from it (someday I’m going to write a huge blog post on why the cinema is shit and you’re all going to hate me forever). However, in this particular case I was captivated by it.
The movie is composed almost completely of silence and stillness. The palette is muted, the cinematography flattened and obscured. We see characters in the distance, at rest, hidden or distorted through lenses and the thick, puddling glass of roughly-cut windowpanes, we see them in mirrors, or through their own viewpoints. There’s not a great deal of gunplay, or action, and when the violence comes it, too, is heavily cut-down – a thick-palmed slap of furious motion, then the long, drawn-out consequences that follow.
And even though there’s not a great deal of dialogue, not much being said out loud, the film is absolutely drenched in drama. The acting, from Casey Affleck especially, is superb. The camera lingers on each character’s face for far longer than any normal filmmaker would dare, and for a time you can barely bring yourself as a viewer to meet Ford’s eyes: his frustration, that simmering, impotent rage that turns over in his belly is right there in those heavy-lidded glances, and the bitter, oily twist of his grin.
Pitt, too, is very good in his role, although he gets less room to show his skills. James, iconic and enigmatic, remains largely so throughout the movie, and it’s only through the aid of narration and a couple of tiny moments that we actually begin to see a little more of the character coming to life. It’s a shame we don’t get more of him, given the running time, but he is a legend in American history, and legends are perhaps best left painted only as an outline.
We know the ending from the beginning, of course, and it’s almost too easy to fall into the trap of seeing Pitt as a good man – even though the narrative paints him quite readily as a thief and a murderer – and Affleck as the twitching, baleful Ephialtes figure who betrays his leader. By the climax, though, things are not so clear-cut, and we’re left swimming in a muddy world where no one figure stands out as right or wrong, and the motivations of the characters are less satisfying from a Hollywood perspective, but so much more from the perspective of humanity. The players are capricious, and this gives the story much-needed tension. As we build to the climactic assassination, there’s a palpable feeling of nervousness, of what if, because although we know how the story ends it feels like at any moment the situation could turn and history could be rewritten in just a single second of celluloid flicker.
That alone makes the movie worth watching. Add to that a well-chosen supporting cast – a few big names in there but none that lumber onto the screen and jar your suspension of disbelief too strongly – and a brilliantly-paced epilogue, this is a great movie to spend an evening with if you’re up for something a little more heavyweight than the norm.
In other news, I got a Kuru Toga mechanical pencil! It has a tiny clutch just behind the nib that rotates the lead to keep the wear uniform across it, reducing breakages and improving the feel when writing. So far, thumbs up!
*Obvious porn title – The Ass-Assassination of…you get the picture.