Bennett Miller’s Moneyball is a strange bird, a rarity amongst sports films that favors heated conversations and historical study over sports theatrics. Check out my review for SanDiego.com.
– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Thick clouds rush the blue sky into a gray existence, filtering the Western world of Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford down to the barest essentials. Here, the frontier is a darkly hued place of inevitable silence, a lyrical last stand for iconic names with dirty faces against the passage of time and the culmination of guilt. Roger Deakins’ camera captures mountain ranges, forests, and tundra’s shrouded in haze, blurring, romanticizing, and complicating the yarns of yesterday. And the death rattle of Western iconography begins and ends with the complex relationship between an American idol and his biggest admirer.
“All of America thinks highly of me.”
Omniscient narrator Hugh Ross, a kind of soothsayer for Dominick, juxtaposes the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) with painterly images of the man gently running his hands through a field of wheat, standing alone against an endless horizon, a figment of history’s imagination. In these early moments, Jesse’s eyes give away a sadness and torment living inside him, something no other character fully understands yet Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ indelible score immediately realizes.
Dominick’s imagining of James borders on ambiguous, especially when his paranoia and suspiciousness begin to tear his life apart. We only have Pitt’s deep optic wells to relay crucial character information on a sub textual level. But James physically emotes a combination of ego, charm, and unpredictability, creating a ripe tension of identity within a man convinced the world needs his iconic status to be complete. As Jesse disintegrates right before our eyes, the haunting process reflects Dominick’s brilliant complication of Western archetypes.
“You don’t have the ingredients son.”
When Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) walks into a space, eyes avert and conversations die, as if the occupants (including his own family) feel incredibly uncomfortable with his presence. From the start, Dominick paints Bob as a lonely cipher amongst a small canon of outlaws, and then contrasts his sly impact on two different James Brothers. Elder Frank (Sam Shepard) can’t stand the sight of him, while Jesse (Brad Pitt) tolerates Bob with casual talk of noodle soup. This discrepancy could be a matter of character, but it also represents one man’s admission to ending the legend and the other’s adherence to compromising it. Bob seems to be the primer for a downfall years in the making.
The Blue Cut Train Robbery, the last official criminal act perpetrated by the James gang, sets this long descent into motion. It’s also the most stylized sequence in the film, as Dominick shrouds the tracks in complete darkness until the blinding light from the locomotive floods the trees, casting shadows on the masked bandits lying in wait. During this robbery, Jesse brutally beats a railroad man nearly to death, and it’s the first and only time the public forum gets to witness his legend in action.
More importantly, the robbery represents how far the James Gang as fallen, populated by unprofessional rubes and bumpkins, eliciting few returns on the massive investment of time and preparation. This flux of certainty and confidence allows Bob into a select group led by Jesse, who remains skeptical, needy for admiration, and unsure of his iconic status.
“It is interesting the many ways you and I overlap.”
Soon, patterns of character overwhelm the Western conventions in The Assassination of Jesse James. Bob retracts and restates his devotion to all things Jesse James again and again, yearning for the man’s approval while detesting his ability to manipulate and control. In one of the decade’s most evocative performances, Affleck plays Bob as a time bomb of facial ticks, half smiles, and outbursts of childish anger, an engine of interior thought and calculation. The breaks and cracks in Bob’s voice speak volumes about his riddled persona.
Not surprisingly, Bob never receives the respect of his peers because he resides outside their universe, a subjective historian of their public evolution. Understanding his hero does not create increased admiration, but more anger. The chameleon resents being taught how to manipulate shape and figure, causing a permanent rift in each character.
Jesse becomes more and more secluded from Bob’s notions of heroism and the audience’s expectations of a historical personage. Their conflicted relationship begins to overlap in many of the same ways Bob has foreseen, each waiting for the other to commit to a specific vision of self, neither staying in one form for very long. The murder of Jesse James only slightly clarifies Bob’s motives, but ultimately muddies the context in which both will be remembered.
“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse more than 800 times.”
That Dominick allows Bob an epilogue infused with regret and memory makes The Assassination of Jesse James twice as tragic, not just creating a parallel destiny between two men intrinsically linked but expanding the Western universe to include the complex social aftermath of the act itself. The ramifications of Bob’s betrayal take on a national meaning, foreshadowing America as a media-heavy beast obsessed with perception over reality.
While Bob and his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) reenact the infamous assassination for hundreds of theater patrons, the legend of Jesse James grows in astronomical proportions. Bob’s rise is equally impressive, but Dominick always flanks this public attention with a lingering sense of guilt and comeuppance. In the final moments, the narration even surmises that Bob “missed the man just as much as everyone else.” History’s human face has come full circle.
“…the light going out in his eyes, before he could find the right words.”
By the end of the film, Dominick builds his crescendo around potent freeze-frames and extreme temporal shifts and The Assassination of Jesse James becomes a hypnotic vision of loyalty and pain, a personal requiem for the very images defining the American West. The escapades and lies add up to an incomplete rendering of History more dynamic and fascinating than any book lesson or educational program could imagine. Dominick interrupts the revisionist Western with a cinematic poem on what it truly means to survive long enough to become the villain.
– The Filmist’s # 9 entry, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, can be found here.
For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino consistently manipulates cinematic time, deconstructing conventional story outlines in order to change temporal and aesthetic meaning. Tarantino’s been branded a thief, a genius, a mad man, and an arrogant bastard. He might be all these things and more, making him one of the few stand alone necessities of American Cinema. Like many have said, a Tarantino movie is an event, but probably for different reasons than it should be. We get hypnotized by his brilliant flair for dialogue and his constant onslaught of film history references. But Tarantino has evolved into a different monster altogether. He’s not trying to be Scorsese, or Wong, or Leone, or Di Leo, or Aldrich, but simply a filmmaker consumed, obsessed, and haunted by these directors and more, able to communicate a personal combustible nightmare on the screen with an unmatched sense of tonal frequencies.
Tarantino’s latest but not quite greatest (I’d still give that honor to Jackie Brown), a film he’s been writing/and or making for over a decade, is a WWII mosaic aptly entitled Inglorious Basterds. It’s a grandiose lesson in historiography, revising the fall of the Third Reich to produce a moral certainty about savagery, brutalization, and role reversals, a collection of bravura set-pieces adding up to what might be Tarantino’s most angry and perplexing work. Inglorious Basterds takes the reign from Kill Bill and other Tarantino films by dividing it’s narrative into Five Chapters, automatically assuming gaps and fissures will litter the work like a minefield of trauma. The period-piece setting makes these narrative breaks feel all the more harrowing, since so much water passes under the bridge yet the core memories remain keenly imprinted.
Inglorious Basterds begins with SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in an opening crescendo of menacing prose and inevitable violence, diabolically stretching out movie time to introduce a descending apocalypse of unmatched cunning, a hawk eyeing a field mouse from afar. Then we get the titular Basterds, a group of American Jews led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, promising atrocities then making good on that promise in a series of bloody, wrenching flashbacks. The other key to this puzzle is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of Tarantino’s opening mass murder, now four years in hiding as a Parisian Cinema owner. Many other fantastic characters emerge, including Michael Fassbender as a British movie critic turned Special Operations Officer and Til Schweiger as an ex-Nazi officer keen on dispatching Nazi officers. Every character gets a shining moment of verbiage and action, but what’s less expected is how each converges like a racing locomotive, quickly becoming both avenger and victim, full of rage and hope and precision one moment, deader than a doornail the next.
Tarantino paints the walls red, but also uses other vibrant hues – blacks, whites, greys, and greens – to hint at the many stories left hidden beneath the surface of a brilliant WWII era reconstruction. This is where Tarantino’s fracturing of time transcends his other films. The sly use of quick flashbacks, voice-over narration, and sound bridges first seems gimmicky, an inconsistent stylistic thrown in to reveal backstory. But as the film progresses, these sudden bursts of style become more complex and intrinsic to Tarantino’s vision of an alternate reality, a fantasy world where the movies can dissect history and alleviate guilt, lesson fear, and proclaim victory over the Nazi’s. The great critic Glenn Kenny has already referenced the best of these, an audio/visual flashback during Chapter 4/Operation Kino that acts as a centerpiece for what turns out to be the most dynamic set-piece of Tarantino’s career, a thirty minute vice of tension played out in a basement tavern. In this scene, time devilishly subverts our expectations.
Furthermore, Tarantino’s vision of time turns into a bendable, evolving beast directly related to the power of the Cinema, accelerating meaning by juxtaposing contrasting images of history together, forcing an outcome that is uncomfortable and revealing. Yet his endgame destroys all remnants of feeling, replacing humility and compassion with a collective vengeance. The many characters of Inglorious Basterds share a desire to rectify traumatic memories, driving them to kill, maim, butcher, and slaughter to justify their ideologies. In the end, time and memory merge together to form a destructive recognition – the numbing of morality to destroy massive evil. Like Aldo’s neck scar stretching from ear to ear, Inglorious Basterds constantly reminds why the past inevitably overlaps onto the present, marking both the guilty and innocent with haunting artistic prowess.
Comparing the opening and ending scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en goes a long way toward understanding the film’s devastating combination of dark spaces, drowning ambient sound, and urban decay. Before Kyle Cooper’s fragmented credit sequence, Fincher introduces Det. William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) preparing for another day in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. Sommerset washes dishes, carefully puts on a tie, lays out his professional essentials (badge, knife, wallet, pen), puts on his coat only before picking off a piece of lint, then calmly turns off a lamp. These actions are juxtaposed with continuous, droning noise from the city beyond, immediately establishing the space as an expanding, shifting, and uneasy environment. Fincher then cuts to a medium shot of a body laying face down in a pool of dark blood, the textures of the space flickering off sharp light consumed by overwhelming darkness. Another detective explains the “crime of passion” just committed, then Sommerset replies, “Yeah just look at all that passion on the wall.” Cynical professionalism incarnate. The rest of the film pits Sommerset’s numbness against Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) naive eagerness and this clash of ideologies builds to a staggering conclusion.
Passion and vengeance define the ending of Se7en as well, but Fincher stages the dramatic daylight finale in the middle of nowhere, an endless prairie of dead grass framed by distant mountains and dissected by dense telephone towers and wires. Instead of close-ups, Fincher’s favored shot throughout the film, wide angle images dominate, flooded with natural light and kinetic movement, often in the form of POV shots from the circling SWAT helicopter. Since Fincher’s goal is maximum tension and suspense, these shots quiver, jolt, and crush the camera’s eye-line. The sound design combines disjointed bursts of ambient noise with Howard Shore’s menacing requiem. In contrast to the dank and foul interiors of the film’s urban sprawl, these moments are even more horrific because their is no escape, no unsolved anomaly, no crazy uncertainty to distance the characters from the deadly reality. Even though light finally reveals the surface of John Doe’s plan, so much remains unexplained.
So in the end, light and dark display different variations of hell on earth, completing John Doe’s “masterpiece” and the film’s narrative arc in a very unsettling way. Instinct destroys rational thought, and Mills inevitably succumbs to his own vision of heroism. Sommerset is left in limbo, watching his partner descend into the realm of madness, while John Doe gets off scot free with a bullet to the head. In the world of Se7en, we wait for those around us to get picked off by the evils of the earth, all the while selfishly hoping we aren’t next. The rain will never end, and so we helplessly watch in horror.
For nearly three hours, David Fincher’s baffling The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sustains a surprising level of simplistic sentiment toward the life and love of its titular character. Fincher, usually a master of methodical mayhem, constructs his huge story around surging moments of emotional transition even though Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) personality never achieves a depth in character beyond his kind smile and sensitive demeanor. It’s this contradiction that overwhelms the better moments of magical whimsey throughout the film; like when Benjamin bursts from childbirth a young soul within a decrepit old baby body, then later joins a grungy tug boat crew and experiences WWII first hand. As Benjamin begins to grapple with the reality of mentally growing old while physically growing younger, the film heads into dangerously false territory (the hummingbird, flashbacks). In the end, the flimsy structure and script overwhelm Fincher’s visual bravado and Pitt’s stirring performance, proving Benjamin Button an epic misfire with little more on its mind than overt symbolism.
A calm but menacing fog hovers over Andrew Dominik’s masterful Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, languishing in the small and intimate gaps of history with a hazy fondness for deception. Doubt filters over the familiarity of the James legend and past honorable incarnations, choosing a more studied and lyrical variation to fawn over. As the infamous Jesse James, Brad Pitt chews out lines and glances with a simple coarseness, often mixing in wary charm and instability for good measure. Through Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins’ cloudy view of old west mythology, James remains a distant analogy, a phantasm sorting out his own conflicting guilts and paranoia’s. As the other title character, the boyish but not sheepish Robert Ford, Casey Affleck turns what could have been a simple 1800’s Ripley into a richly layered regenerating chameleon of anguish, fear, and quivering intensity. Ironically, Ford and James don’t share much screen time, the film choosing instead to chart multiple overlapping stories of the James gang and their lengthy split. This widespread dynamic allows the film to slowly build toward the inevitable ending, relegating typical genre events for solemn character development and dream like landscapes. Dominik brilliantly spells out long, calculated conversations with these characters and uses a haunting mixture of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score and Deakins’ impressionistic images to create an unwavering experience transcending sublime reflection. As Jesse James and Robert Ford move toward their famous last meeting, the cliched aspects of the traditional western yarns melt away into the deep snowy forest mise-en-scene, crippling traditional codes of cowboy iconography along the way. Above all things, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford complicates themes of honor in the Western, showing a deep seeded deceit inherent in both the outlaws and the country as a whole. Underneath the six-guns, prostitutes, and bank robberies, the decay of expectation potently rots. During the devastating ending sequence and incredible Robert Ford-based epilogue, Dominik’s film dares to think that within America’s most celebrated and transparent genre, there might not have been any such honor in the first place, just the desire to be known.