Monday, June 9, 2008

The Outlaw And His Minions

When we were young, cowboys and injuns were easy to define. The cowboys were heroes and the injuns were the bad guys. The injuns were a weird and evil lot, or so the TV shows and movies told us. I grew up with a fondness for westerns and all other historical and mythical tales. It's now easy to draw comparisons between westerns and wuxia, or westerns and samurai films. But it's getting even harder to draw the line between good and evil.

I guess ever since the 1950s, things have changed greatly for the western. Films like John Ford's The Searchers gave a human face to the Native American, and brought into focus, and questioned, the racist motives of the cowboy. Since then, and even more lately, we've had revisionist and more politically correct westerns. Films like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven unflinchingly shattered the romantic myth of the gunfighter. No longer was it easy and pleasurable to kill someone, nor can the killer remain unaffected. The old hero myth had become ineffectual in the blurring of morals and natures.

Why am I talking about this? Because I've just seen The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. While Unforgiven basically asks what happens to the gunfighter hero when age catches up with him, TAOJJBTCRF takes a strong, sharp stab at idolisation and the idol.

I'd read Ron Hansen's novel, on which the film is based, but I never finished it on account of it becoming drier towards its second half, although that style of writing I initially found to be rather unique. Andrew Dominik's adaptation is faithful, and captures exactly the feel of the book. It's a newsy account of the last days of the James gang, but it also has a certain poignancy about it, which Dominik managed to create. Roger Deakins' beautiful photography lends much to some of the dream-like sequences, underlining the effect of reality surrounded by myth.

At its heart is the story of one young man's idolisation of his childhood hero and misplaced ambition and how they come to destroy both the mythical figure and his admirer. Meanwhile, the idol himself is the epitome and representation of every pop figure clutching helplessly and desperately to fame and respect. As everything that propped him up starts to slip away, a desperate man resorts to desperate measures in the face of paranoia. Watching his idol fall apart, the admirer gets caught in a web of what he perceives as betrayal. The end result is the tragic titular incident.

TAOJJBTCRF is a film that carries only the most necessary dialogues, preferring to let the stares and glances and the uncomfortable silences between its characters to tell the story. I'd heard much about Casey Affleck's performance as Bob Ford, and it is indeed wondrous to behold, his face conveying so much. Dominik's camera knows just how much and how long to take from and stay on Affleck, sometimes even in blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments. Take for example, the scene where Ford tries to get out of bed and reach for the gun but James who is next to him orders him to stay put. As Ford turns, there's just the momentary glint of a fearful tear running down his face. It's little touches like this that make the film so special.

TAOJJBTCRF is definitely one of the best films last year, and one of the best westerns there is. It's an affecting cautionary tale about the dangers of fame and those who blindly embrace its mythical offerings, clearly a reflection of contemporary pop culture.

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