Myths of the west
During the press conference at The Venice Film Festival this year, someone asked Aussie director...
During the press conference at The Venice Film Festival this year, someone asked Aussie director Andrew Dominik about the title of his new film. They complained that it gave the story away, and that it was too long. Brad Pitt - who not only stars in the film but produces as well - liked the title because it plays with people's expectations about what a western should or shouldn't be. "The film deals more with the dissection of the myth of Jesse James and the myth of Robert Ford the coward," he said, which is why he thinks labelling it as a western is "misleading." He prefers to call it a psychological drama. "Andrew once called it more of a gangster film," he said. "It's hard to come up with one category that sums it up."
Adapted from Ron Hansen's historical novel, which examines the personal and public life of Jesse James (published in 1983), Dominik does the source material justice by sidestepping western cliches, instead honing in on what makes this tale intriguing - the intensely complex relationship between Jesse James and his assassin. At its core, it's a tale of jealousy and obsession. Set against a stark, austere landscape, themes of crime, loyalty, myth, fate and celebrity are explored against an epically grand canvas.
Dominik might seem an odd choice to win such a coveted directing gig. After all, before now, the only film under his belt was Chopper, and while it was well received, it's fair to say that it was well received in very limited circles, given the subject matter. To suddenly go from there to a $30 million plus film, is quite a leap. Chopper, however, happens to be a film that Pitt loves. He describes it as "Mean Streets good, in my opinion", and so he went in search of the relatively unknown Aussie.
There are several similarities between the two films. The titular characters of both are legendary criminals who become prisoners of their own making, when the infamy and notoriety take on a life of their own. But Jesse James is a far cry from Chopper. It's a more mature film, and offers a contemplative character study that is beautifully measured in its pace and hypnotic in its artistry. Brad Pitt deservedly took out the Best Actor Award at Venice. It's the best thing he's done in years and there is now talk of an Oscar. Not that he would be drawn on that one. When asked at Toronto [the film went from The Venice Film Festival to The Toronto Film Festival] whether he thought he might be up for an Academy Award, he replied, "I don't play that game." What he was happy to discuss however, was the role. Jesse James was arguably one of America's first celebrities, and at one point he was more familiar to people than the President - something that Pitt could relate to.
"Certainly there are aspects of celebrity that I understand," he says. "I understand being hunted to a degree and having a bounty on my head, but fortunately no one's pointing guns at me. But the Jesse James character is certainly caught in his own celebrity. He's weary of living under an alias and has really lost himself in this perpetuation of this outlaw life. There's another interesting aspect of celebrity here that's applicable to today, and that's Casey's character's blind want for fame without any real understanding of the consequence of what you're really asking for, and the idea that through fame you receive some kind of personal validity. So I think those are not the main themes, but they're certainly themes that are at play."
Casey Affleck - the younger brother of Ben - is a revelation in the role. Many people will recognise him from the Ocean's films, but as Pitt points out, "he's much more than the parts he's been able to play." He delivers a brilliantly understated performance, at once timid, ingratiating, desperate to be liked, annoying, smart and whiney. He's the kid that everyone picks on, but when he says "I been a nobody all my life. I been the baby, the one everybody made promises to they never kept", you get a glimpse of the level of resentment that's been percolating over the years. Bob wants to be somebody, and he gets his wish by killing Jesse James. "This is a very complex role," says Pitt. "And I don't want to speak for Casey, but certainly my idea of Robert Ford was this kind of need for validity and hero worship and search for fame that would give him some sense of meaning, and it turns a bit Chaplineseque when he's spurned by that love and ends up destroying it."
"I didn't really approach it as playing somebody who was a coward or a victim or a traitor," adds Affleck. "I tried to think of him as someone who would think of himself as more than that and as having heroic qualities and seeing himself as more than what other
people saw him as."
Andrew Dominik is not a fan of westerns, and that probably worked in his favour. He set out to break all the rules of the genre and to see how far he could push it. "Generally, I find them [westerns] dull and predictable," he says. "I also had no interest in exploring Jesse James as some kind of iconic American figure. So Jesse James as a character was not something that particularly interested me until I read the book, which was really beautiful. The characters seemed really good and it was really dense. I liked the language, and the sense that you've got characters really struggling with themselves. It was thematically rich - the only thing it didn't really have is a plot."
The film is "historically accurate" although "the relationships are imagined," says Dominik. When asked why he added narration (something that many see as a lazy story telling tool), he said, "It's the way the book was, and I liked the narration from the point of view of providing a sense that it is written or a sense of fatalism and I also liked the kind of fairy tale quality that it gives to the story."
The voice over is cleverly done, and by commenting on the characters and their activities, it adds a sense of poeticism to the film that might not otherwise have been there. The film has already been compared to other great modern westerns like Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller, which is bleak, beautifully composed and elegiac. Dominik is clearly flattered by the remarks and it must be extremely satisfying given the rumours that have surrounded this film for the past year, ever since its autumn release in the U.S. was cancelled. "Basically the film was not going to fall together in the ten weeks that we had to cut the picture," says Dominik. "It was a tough movie to cut; it doesn't have a plot. It's based on the emotional energies of each scene building the right way. The performances are really complex; all you've got is characters and you've got to get that stuff balanced and it's a fall movie. They're not going to release it in summer; if you miss one fall, you wait for the next one. In the meantime, there's obviously time to tinker. There have been stories that it's been a troubled movie and it's been a train wreck. That's only worked in our favour though, because the movie is a lot better than people were expecting."
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is released in cinemas on November 1. For more on Andrew Dominik, pick up the latest issue of FILMINK Magazine, available in newsagents now.