Lost in the Movies: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford definitely veers into Terence Malick territory, but with some interesting differences. Firstly, the obvious similarities. Both Malick and Assassination director Andrew Dominik love to set lonesome types adrift in stunning vistas of natural beauty, draping the proceedings with intricate, evocative narration. (In her amusing but scathing review, Stephanie Zacharek of Salon writes that "when Jesse's wife ...wipes her hands on her apron, we're told that she 'wiped her pink hands on an apron' -- because, you know, we probably ascertained that she has hands, but we might not have noticed that they were pink.") Certainly both open themselves up to charges of pretension and self-indulgence, as well as praise for taking their time to evoke a delicate mood and definite perspective in their visuals, instead of just shooting a mere setting in which stuff happens.

But the differences are telling, particularly in terms of cinematography, by the master cameraman Roger Deakins. In Assassination, wide-angle lenses are not favored and when master shots are used, the edges of the frame are blurred, drawing our focus to the people at the center of the frames. In one memorable shot, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) stands on a railway awaiting an oncoming train in the black of the night. We only see him and a few blades of grass illuminated by the lantern and as the camera zooms over his shoulder, the darkness is all that remains for a few moments, until the train arrives and illuminates a corner of the screen (though, revealingly, not all of it). Here, as elsewhere in the film, Dominik chooses to isolate his elements of interest and obscure the rest.

Contrast this to the work of Nestor Alemendros in Terence Malick's seminal work Days of Heaven, the film that - visually - Assassination most resembles. In both films we get waving fields of wheat, but Dominik's camera shoots them in telephoto, framing his protagonists with the yellow stalks while Malick allows his characters to swim in vast, sweeping, wind-blown seas of grain. In Malick, wide shots place his characters in the context of their surroundings instead of vice-versa and the panoramas open up the movie.

Dominik's editing is staccato whereas Malick is lyrical, Dominik's music elegaic whereas Malick favors romantic sweep, and Dominik's narration, for all its overwrought detail, stands outside the characters, allowing us into their thought-process without actually giving them voice -- while Malick gives his characters (or at least one in the case of Days of Heaven) the right to narration, though their own statements are not particularly illuminating. Overall, then, the primary difference between Dominik and Malick is that Dominik focuses and narrows our vision while Malick expands and opens it up. Dominik's characters sink into themselves, getting lost and eventually giving up, unable as they are to penetrate reality's shell. Malick's explode outward, often self-destructive but full of a dynamic energy that is simultaneously fueled by and larger than their environment.

Though I appreciate both visions and am glad the art form has room for both, I ultimately find Malick's more edifying. Furthermore, Dominik's is more in tune with the aesthetic of our time which is intent on narrowing options and controlling vision (perhaps that's due to the overwhelmingly technological feel of this decade, but that's a post for another day). Nonetheless, Dominik's vision is correct for the story he chose to tell; the so-called coward Robert Ford struggles to stay afloat, and although he says he's got "greatness inside of him" he's never really able to summon it. When he himself is finally shot dead, all Robert Ford can do is stare up at the ceiling as the darkness approaches, waiting for the light of an oncoming train to illuminate him. It never does.


Anonymous said...

It's so weird seeing Dominik go from directing "Chopper" to directing "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Joel Bocko said...

I haven't seen Chopper...was there any similarity in style?

I sometimes become skeptical when a director moves from generic, undistinguished fare to something "deeper"; often the sophistication of the latter work is skin-deep. But Ingmar Bergman constitutes the ultimate counterexample: most of his early works really are standard-issue melodramas, with about as much sophistication as a TV movie and technical competence but certainly not stylistic ingenuity.

Considering where he ended up, he should be designated the patron saint of directors struggling to find their voice: just because you don't emerge with a fully-formed sensibility and control (like say Godard or Welles) doesn't mean you can't become an auteur.

I'll look forward to Dominik's future work (hopefully it doesn't take another 7 years to emerge).

Culture Snob said...

(Snagged by the birthday post. Damn you.)

The comment "I ultimately find Malick's more edifying" is offered without explicit explanation, although I'd guess that your reasons were summarized earlier: "Dominik focuses and narrows our vision while Malick expands and opens it up." Am I correct in that assumption?

Your contrast is instructive, but I think it sells Assassination short. It might be narrower than a Malick movie, but I think that's different from being a "closed" or interpretively didactic one, as that sentence implies. (Preemptively: I recognize that you've made a relative statement rather than an absolute one.) Within its story and scope, Dominik's movie still leaves a lot of room for reading, and I found it gloriously ambiguous emotionally and psychologically.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, CS. I'm glad it's snagging at least a few responses...hopefully more will be on the way. You are correct both in your assumption and your recognition that my statement is relative rather than absolute. As I say in the piece, "I appreciate both visions and am glad the art form has room for both" whatever my subjective preference - which should I indicate what I like to see more, not what I want to see exclusively.

Semantic parsing aside, I also agree that the movie is ambiguous and allows for multiple readings, primarily within its storytelling strategies, but also through to a certain extent through its mise en scene (a tricky word, but utilized for lack of a better). However, as is my wont, I'm more interested in the tensions within and between works than the harmonies, and I tended to notice the contrasts that accompanied the similarities in both works.

To become somewhat reductive in the hope of making a general point, I think Assassination's ambiguities and "openness" are mostly offscreen (though their scent wafts on from time to time) - we're aware of their presence, but like the light of that train they're there, in the distance, and we can't quite see the whole object. Whereas in Days of Heaven the openness is foregrounded. Both approaches are valid and if I lean towards Malick's approach it may in large part be that I'm tired of the more closed-off zeitgeist of the moment, i.e. it may have very little to do with what's "better" (if such a thing can be ascertained).

Hopefully this is not too abstract or vague; I saw the movie a while ago, and what remains more than specific details is an overall impression.

Thanks again for your input - hope to see more of you here!

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