Retro Rental: Seeing ‘Killing Them Softly’? Check Out ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ Instead
[Each week, depending on what's in theaters, what's in the news or what's on his mind, film critic James Rocchi brings you The Retro Rental, an older film on disc or download that connects with the here-and-now. ...]
Brad Pitt and director Andrew Dominik's 'Killing them Softly' opens this weekend, and it's a film I consider as strained as it is strong -- for every great performance there's a heavy-handed bit of symbolism, and all the subtext is pretty much text. But it -- and a recent Variety article pondering if movies are too long (and, by the way, uh, the answer is "No," thank you very much) -- sent me back to thinking about 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' Pitt and Dominik's excellent, overlooked previous 2007 release.
'Jesse James' is a better film to my mind than 'Killing,' and at 2 hours and 40 minutes, rather longer. But that's why it's so good, with its influences from Malick and other directors who knew that letting a little or a lot of space happen in between the lines of a film makes us hear the few there are better, like when you lean in to hear someone whisper. The storyline, also, coheres in a way that 'Killing' doesn't -- Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) meets up with Jesse James (Pitt) at the tail end of the good ole days when the frontier for roughnecks is becoming towns for ordinary folk and the Wild West much more civilized; eventually, Ford, longing for recognition and excitement, shoots James to collect the bounty on his head and the attendant acclaim.
And again, are movies too long? Not if they're good, and not if the length has a point. We talk about composition in film -- light and color, blocking and performance, camera positioning and camera movement -- but another element of composition is time, and it's here Dominik shows he's got the touch. (For another example of time as an element in composition, you could hack an hour of silence out of 'Lawrence of Arabia'... but it wouldn't be 'Lawrence of Arabia.')
And 'Jesse James' actually works as a metaphor and critique of our culture far better than 'Killing' does, bolting Obama speeches and Bush soundbites from 2008 onto a 1973 novel. 'Jesse James,' though, is about celebrity culture, which we suffered even then, and how it's both an inextricable part of America and the worst part of America. Celebrity culture these days means either building people up so they're above you... or tearing them down later so they're beneath you. (Really, shouldn't every gossip mag on the stands -- US or PEOPLE or OK! or any of them -- just be called either Schadenfreude or Lust, Mingled with Contempt?) It turns out that was the same in the 1800s, with Ford idolizing James, then despising James' seeming weakness as he realizes his roving days are drawing to a close. Ford shot James... and then became famous for it, ultimately recreating his cowardly back-shooting moment of "fame" on stage, night after night until a final curtain call.
Both Pitt and Affleck are excellent here -- depicting the slow, deep change of emotions and alliances -- and cinematographer Roger Deakins is, as ever, in a class by himself. There's a moment here of a teaspoon... slowly... coming to rest after it's stirred a mug, a shot full of as much tension and dread as any over-done CGI robot or monster could ever provide. Are movies too long? Bad movies, yes -- the 102 minutes of 'Grown Ups' feel far more like 102 lifetimes. But a good movie, a great movie, knows that now and then, telling the story right takes time -- and 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' tells that story at least as well as it chronicles an outlaw legend and his lauded killer.
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' is available on DVD and Blu-ray.