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Two Imperfect Films
by Lucius Shepard
November 14, 2007

Andrew Dominick’s first feature, released seven years ago, was Chopper, a hyperkinetic film based on the life of Australian sociopath and criminal Mark “Chopper“ Reed, who is the author of a string of quasi-autobiographical books, one subtitled “How to Shoot Friends and Influence People,” reminiscent in their hero-as-outlaw tone, though not their language, of the 19th-century dime novels that purportedly served up true relations of the lives of men like Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Bat Masterson, and so on, as told by these worthies to a variety of hack writers. Chopper was a stunning piece of work, beautifully ambiguous and absurdist, compact and gritty, revealing of Reed’s pathology and documenting his rise to the status of folk hero, if only in his own mind.

Now comes Dominik’s second feature, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a dark, revisionist western that aspires to be seen as a companion piece to movies like The Shooting and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and is anything but kinetic, 106 minutes longer than his first, yet effects a character study of another seeker after celebrity. Between these two movies, Dominik worked as second unit director on Terrence Malick’s The New World, a reshaping of the John Smith-Pocahontas story. What Dominik learned from Malick—the use of voiceover, an attentiveness to the beauty of the natural world, et al—is on full display in Jesse James, albeit with mixed result. The movie puts me in mind of Dodesukaden, a film made by Akira Kurosawa immediately after being mentored by Masaki Kobayashi, the great Japanese filmmaker who gave us Kwaidan, The Human Condition, and Hara Kiri. Kobayashi was a master at framing a shot—few of his frames couldn’t be hung on the wall as though they were still photographs. Dodesukaden reflects Kobayashi’s influence throughout, particularly as regards its visual style, and is patchily brilliant, a harbinger of things to come.

In the fall of 1888, then, Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank James (Sam Shepard) are preparing to rob a train. Their gang has been decimated by death, imprisonment, and defection, and so they’re operating with a gang made up of young losers and misfits who are awed by their association with the charismatic Jesse—they might be a skuzzier version of the posse in Entourage. None are more starstruck than Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a shifty-eyed nineteen-year-old with an aw-shucks grin, of whom Frank James says, “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.” Ford, whose brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) has also signed on for the robbery, is unhealthily obsessed with Jesse and sleeps with a box of Jamesian memorabilia under his bed. After the robbery succeeds but fails to yield the expected reward, the gang goes their separate ways, Frank and Jesse parting for the final time, and Jesse gradually descends into clinical paranoia—he’s certain that the huge reward offered for his capture will lead one or another of the gang to betray him, and he visits each in turn to determine the quality of their loyalty. During this overlong middle section, the film’s pace goes from leisurely to glacially slow, and we are given far too many reiterations of Jesse’s evolving psychosis, too many scenes directed to the same purpose, and too many art shots—trees swaying in a wind, chairs in empty rooms, cloud-dappled wheat fields, a veritable Malick-fest of gorgeously photographed minutiae, yet lacking the moral connectivity this imagery acquires in movies like The New World or Days of Heaven, the sense that the landscape is somehow complicit in the events of the film, or adversarial to them, or at least an observer of human events. Roger Deakins’ cinematography at times seems to have been lifted from the pages of a coffee-table book, beautiful, dreamlike images with a high gloss that are meant for display and not for any kinetic purpose.

It’s apparent that Dominik, who both directed and wrote the movie, had great respect for his source materials, Ron Hanson’s morose and psychologically vivid novel. Indeed, it seems he became infatuated with it and so forgot the dictum that things that work on the page do not always work on the screen. The voiceover, for instance. An omniscient narrator, Hugh Ross, delivers chunks of Hansen’s prose and, though initially effective, pronouncements such as “He read auguries in the boiled intestines of chickens” come across as odd irrelevancies, facts culled from a book entitled “The Weird Old West,” rather than being part of an accumulative process that establishes Jesse’s eccentricity. Dominik allows the voiceover to become sententious and too often commits the cardinal sin of voiceover use: merely recounting what is shown on the screen. “Zee wiped her pink hands on an apron,” we are told when Jesse’s wife does exactly that, as if the audience is blind or otherwise impaired.

Hansen intended his book to be Shakespearean in scope, a tragedy rife with jealousy and betrayal—this is hinted at in the movie, but Dominik, perhaps wisely, has focused his film on the modern myth of celebrity, with Jesse playing John Lennon to Ford’s Mark David Chapman. Pitt’s Jesse is less a performance than a collection of squints and twitches—we’ve seen amped-up versions of this portrayal in 12 Monkeys, in Fight Club, and, seminally, in Dennis Hopper’s demented photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. It’s astonishing that Pitt should have received the Best Actor prize at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for what is so unrevealing a performance; yet I suppose the performance is appropriate to the movie’s subtext in that the iconic figure remains iconic, that we end up with only intriguing clues about the character of Jesse James—Mark David Chapman knew no more than that about John Lennon, after all. The awards should belong to Affleck, who provides Ford with enough whiney detail for three such characters. You begin to hate this mumbling, pink-eyed little creep, and there’s the problem. Would you want to spend two hours and forty minutes watching a sad, deranged, inconsequential fanboy carry a movie? “I got qualities that don’t come shinin’ through right at the outset,” Ford tells Frank James. Not only at the outset, pal. This guy is the original punk-ass, and watching him cringe and cajole, terrified of Jesse one moment, doting the next, is interesting . . . for a while. Then it’s not.

I generally like slow movies and non-sympathetic characters, but somewhere around the two-hour mark I was ready to write the picture off as a case of Dominik’s reach exceeding his grasp. Though I was never bored, neither was I ever fully engaged. Despite some amazing images (notably a train approaching through a pitch-dark forest), all the stylistic touches didn’t amount to much. The tone was of unrelieved joylessness and the narration had become beyond annoying and I had grown weary of the painstakingly accurate period dialogue, which lent every pronouncement an air of quaintness . . . and then everything clicked. From the point when, on the day before he kills him, Ford pokes around Jesse’s house, examining his toilet articles, slipping into his bed, and on through the murder, accomplished when Jesse goes to straighten a picture on the wall, and on through an eerie and surreal epilogue in which the Ford Brothers take to the stage in order to re-enact the now-legendary event, the movie and Affleck are mesmerizing. It kind of ticked me off that Dominik got this last bit right after getting so much wrong, but I believe that last thirty, forty minutes is a harbinger of things to come—I’ve seen enough of Dominik to persuade me that sooner or later, probably next time out, he’s going to bring in a masterpiece.

* * *

Michael Clayton, the legal thriller starring George Clooney and directed by first-timer Tony Gilroy (the screenwriter of record for the Bourne trilogy), suffers from exactly the opposite problem. Unlike Jesse James, which could have used about thirty minutes or so of cuts, Clayton could stand to have thirty minutes of film restored—it’s evident that at least that much was excised from the picture to try to fit it into a neat two-hour theatrical slot, which it now does, precisely. Devised as a formulaic entertainment, Clayton entertains, zipping along merrily for the first hour and three-quarters, setting up a conflict between a powerful corporation and a worn-out cynic, a fixer in a law firm (”I’m not a lawyer, I’m a janitor,” the titular Clayton/Clooney says), someone who knows how to bend and shade the law to his clients’ benefit . . . and then, in the space of fifteen minutes, it concludes with unsatisfactory abruptness, leaving its sub-plots unresolved or, in some cases, abandoned. A young woman of whom much is made, Anna, a victim of the corporation, is brought on camera briefly, her family introduced, and then she never appears again. A child’s book yields an important clue and seems as if it has greater secrets to reveal; but its potential revelations, too, are left on the cutting room floor. Then, too, there is Tilda Swinton’s too-brief appearance as adversarial lawyer—one senses that there was considerably more to her part.

Michael Clayton (Clooney) is disillusioned with the practice of law, haunted by loan sharks, and resentful of his junkie brother, whose addiction effectively ruined a restaurant venture and plunged him into debt. He’s a shell of the man he once was, trying to recoup his losses in Chinatown poker games, negligently parenting a ten-year-old boy whom he lost in a divorce. Like the poet says, he’s “unloved and unsung.” Shortly after the movie opens, he is called to “fix” a situation involving a wealthy suburbanite who has committed a hit-and-run, as yet unreported to the police. On his way back to the city, he leaves his car on the shoulder and goes to have a closer look at some horses in a field. He’s obviously having some sort of epiphany. But as he’s communing with the horses, his car blows up.

The movie flashes back to four days earlier, to another problem he has been called in to fix. His firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has suffered a breakdown and stripped naked during a deposition relating to a three-billion-dollar lawsuit in which he’s representing U-North, an agrochemical company that’s been killing people—thousands of them, perhaps—with their fertilizer. Arthur, like Michael Clayton (like almost everyone in the movie, as a matter of fact), is an empty shell, a victim of the spiritual rot endemic to the practice of this high-powered, profit-first sort of law, and now he has cracked wide-open. Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the amiable yet cold-blooded head of Michael’s firm, sends him to shepherd Arthur and keep him quiet, but Arthur, who’s in possession of a document that will incriminate U-North, escapes Michael’s care and threatens to bring the whole edifice of lies tumbling down. U-North’s chief counsel, Karen Crowder (Swinton), wants Arthur kept quiet as well. We first meet her after she throws up in the bathroom preparatory to an important meeting. She operates in a perpetual flop-sweat, under such great pressure that she, too, has cracked a little, and she authorizes a hit on Arthur, telling the button-down thugs that U-North uses for these chores to use “any means necessary.”

Steven Soderbergh, the co-producer of Michael Clayton, is the man generally credited with being the first director to squeeze a decent performance out of Clooney when they joined forces on Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight. He must have given Gilroy a few tips, because Clooney has never been better, projecting an aura of failure and desperation in a two-thousand-dollar suit, of someone who has given up any hope of self-respect in exchange for a job that is killing his spirit. It’s too bad that in their unseemly desire to tailor the movie to a time slot, the studio threw the baby out with the bathwater and sacrificed what might have been a sublime thriller in return for increased popcorn sales.