I finally got around to seeing it, last night, and felt compelled for some reason to record my impressions. Which lie, for you should you care, right after the jump.
First and foremost: the film is way, way too long.
It’s also ponderous and plodding.
I quite like quiet films. But the basic trouble here is, nothing much happens for the first two hours and twenty minutes. Oh, sure, things happen: there’s a train robbery, and at some point someone gets shot. But I didn’t care about any of it.
Because here’s what really happens for the first two hours and twenty minutes: people talk. More specifically, young men talk (this is such a “young male” film), and what’s worse, they exposit endlessly, all of it in numbing shot-reverse-shot.
But it’s all still fairly boring, not to mention relentlessly sepia-toned. I must confess, I tuned out more than once.
(When will someone in Hollywood have the courage to shoot a period piece on video? Which is also to ask, when will someone in Hollywood possess courage equal to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet?)
Some other things that repeatedly happen throughout the film:
- people sit in wheat fields, which billow, billow, billow;
- clouds roll by;
- people stare out of windows, all the panes of which are warped;
- the director references the hell out of The Searchers, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Days of Heaven, and Miller’s Crossing, which are the names of four films I’d much rather have watched.
Here’s what also happened: I doodled a lot in my tablet.
(Roger Deakins didn’t shoot Miller’s Crossing—Barry Sonnenfeld did—although we might be forgiven for forgetting that fact these days—but more than once while watching TAoJJbtCRF I wondered, “Is Deakins trying to retroactively claim Miller’s Crossing somehow?”)
Moving on, or perhaps identifying the primary flaw: like most contemporary Hollywood films, what we have here is a movie where simply everything—all information—is related through the dialogue. Hardly anything is enacted, or dramatized. (There’s even a voice-over narrator filling in all the gaps, for crissakes!)
Other ways in which this film is typical of contemporary Hollywood:
- I wasn’t surprised to find no women in the film. (Mary-Louise Parker is glimpsed in the background once or twice. She seems always to be busy making pies.) (I had such a crush on her in the 1990s.)
- I wasn’t surprised that all adult sexuality is excised from the film, while every moment of violence is depicted in close-up, gory detail. (As I joked to a friend, we get to see a snake’s decapitatation in meticulous detail, but not the sex scene in the privy—even though that latter bit is a major plot point. … I have to wonder sometimes about the minds of today’s Hollywood directors, and why they’re so keen on showing us what they show us.)
- I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Andrew Dominik‘s original cut ran 4 hours long. Saints preserve us!
So there’s another film that Dominik had to be thinking of: Heaven’s Gate. Which, despite all its faults (and they are many), is a much better movie than TAoJJbtCRF.
(Isn’t it time we acknowledge that Heaven’s Gate, despite having committed the cardinal Hollywood sin of having lost a lot of people a ton of money, isn’t, actually, all that terrible a picture? Sure, it’s ludicrous at times, and similarly much too long, but it also goes a long way to entertain its audience, which is something Andrew Dominik clearly cares little about.)
The actors, one and all, sure did enunciate their dialogue to death (the working title was, “Insanely Mannered Line Readings!”):
Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider): You know, I’m what they call an inamorato.
Dick Liddil (his performance was the most mannered): They say that when a woman’s on fire, you’re supposed to roll her around on the ground and cover her with your body.
Another observation: we’re all familiar with the concept of authorial intrusion. But what should we call it when an author keeps inserting his research into a project? This happens a great deal in period pictures, and TAoJJbtCRF is no exception:
Narrator (Hugh Ross): Jesse was sick with rheums, and aches and lung congestions. Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot. He read auguries in the snarled intestines of chickens, or the blow of cat hair released to the wind. And the omens promised bad luck, which moated and dungeoned him.
Narrator: Charley was increasingly superstitious, increasingly subject to the advice of soothsayers, who promised to cure his miseries with pipe smoke and poultices.
Narrator: Another photograph was taken of the renowned American bandit, nestled in his bed of ice. And it was this shot that was most available in sundries and apothecaries, to be viewed in a stereoscope alongside the sphinx, the Taj Mahal, and the catacombs of Rome.
Forgive me for having wondered more than once whether the screenplay had been coauthored by Colin Meloy.
OK, so here’s something that I liked: Nick Cave’s score is very pleasant. I enjoyed listening to it. Indeed, at times, it was the only thing keeping my attention.
Another something: the final twenty minutes or so—everything from the assassination scene onward—are pretty good. I liked all of that fine! The scene immediately following Jesse James’s death—the medical examination and the photographing and all of that—is wonderful. It’s as though Dominik suddenly realized that scenes can convey their information visually, and poetically.
That said, this bit of voice-over narration is excruciatingly bad:
Something began to change in Charley’s stage portrayal of Jesse. His gait seemed more practiced. His voice was spookily similar to the man’s. His newly suggested dialogue was analogous to a script Jesse might have originated. He began to look at his younger brother with spite, as if he suspected that in some future performance, he might present himself to a live cartridge in Robert Ford’s gun.
But most of the rest of the material toward the end is compelling stuff. Suddenly there’s tension, pathos, interest. It’s what the movie should have been.
To be sure, women are still given short shrift—Zooey Deschanel puts in a few minutes in a role as thankless as Mary-Louise Parker’s—
—but it’s obvious that the real story is what happened to Robert Ford after he shot Jesse James. Why we have to sit through 140 minutes of the James’s gang’s high school-level politics before that boggles my mind. (I would have cut out an hour’s worth, at least.)
Let’s consider another way in which this movie could have been much better. The scene where Robert Ford shoots Jesse James? It is, as I said, perfectly nice. But what if, instead of seeing the whole thing unfold, we’d cut suddenly from the set-up there to one of the stage reenactments that follow? That would have been pretty daring, huh? (That’s how the recently departed Raúl Ruiz might have chosen to do it!) (Or Jacques Rivette.) (The film, after all, pretends in its last twenty minutes to be concerned with how the assassination was subsequently depicted. I think that, in fact, was the entire film. The narrator tells us that Robert Ford reenacted the shooting thousands and thousands of times; that sounds like a structure to me!)
Another way: what if there was no violence whatsoever until that assassination scene? Or no violence in the film whatsoever? A shocking concept, I know, for these gore-loving times. But think about it: the film is supposedly about the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford. And so much else in the film is recounted verbally, and not depicted. So what would the film have looked like if we’d never seen James engage in any banditry whatsoever, and were instead simply told about his horrible exploits? And he spent his time baking pies with his wife, and playing with his children? That would have made him a much more complicated, perhaps even sympathetic figure, no?
Another way: what if there was even a single moment of humor in the film? I hated just about every grim second I spent with every grim member of the Jesse James gang, even (after a while) Sam Rockwell‘s character (and when Rockwell’s performance starts getting one note, you know the picture’s in serious trouble). I couldn’t wait for them to begin offing one another!
Andrew Domink may have been 40 years old when he made this picture, but at heart he was a 23-year-old man. (The only way I knew that Christopher Nolan hadn’t directed it was that there weren’t any explosions.)
Of course I will never have my way, but if I did, I’d decree that for the next 100 years, all young white men should be barred from directing movies. Which, ideally, would be directed for the most part by Puerto Rican women. Gay Puerto Rican women, preferably.
Another major problem with this movie: it’s nowhere near as good as The Assassination of Yogi Bear by the Coward Booboo:
Now that’s cinema.
Update: How did I forget to work this in?