Category: Reviews

Andrew Dominik’s remarkable The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford follows the induction of Robert Ford into the infamous James Gang and his dangerously close-range relationship with its leader. It is a sad and fascinating rendering of Ford’s ambivalent obsession with, ridicule by, and finally betrayal of the legendary outlaw.

The film presents the James/Ford narrative in a spellbinding haze of mythology and forensic historicism, a to-ing and fro-ing between the dreamlike and the documentary evoked by the use of sober narration with storybook sepia color-grading. We are looking at this story anew, but we are not beyond the myth yet. The use of narrowed focus in several sequences suggests both renewed scrutiny of a famous tale, while emulating the eye condition from which James reportedly suffered. The revisionist examination of the James myth offered here is provocative without being showy or cynical, and it is difficult for me to recall a Western so engrossing in its realism: we are watching the James Gang, we are watching Jesse James and Robert Ford.

This latter accomplishment clearly owes a great deal to The Assassination’s hypnotic, fully realized performances. Brad Pitt brings James to life as a dimly charismatic figure, both fact and phantasm, intimidating in his ability to project both inscrutability and brutish caprice whether they are genuine or not. Casey Affleck is undoubtedly the real star here though, and poignantly communicates Ford’s sense of his own inferiority alongside James, and his inability to believe (despite his fascination with similarities between them) that the two men are truly comparable. Both sinister and sympathetic, it is the kind of performance that one speaks of a film as “worth seeing alone for,” and hardly less than a triumph.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t for everyone: even with its rhythmic fluctuation between fear and banality, the film doesn’t always have the kind of scene-to-scene momentum that keeps viewers alert to the subtle significance of its portrayals. However, at least some of those who expect it won’t be for them will probably be surprised. At any rate, this reviewer found The Assassination an intricately nuanced picture sure to benefit from repeat viewings even though the initial one is a captivating, even overwhelming, experience.  4.5 / 5

307636.jpg“If They Move… Kill ’Em!’: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah by David Weddle.
Grove Press, New York, 1994.

With the numerous special editions, extended versions and director’s cuts that bear his name, we hear a lot about the hindrances various studios placed on the maverick vision of Sam Peckinpah. David Weddle’s If They Move… Kill ’Em! also captures the hindrances Peckinpah himself placed on an otherwise unique and energetic talent: his drinking, his uncompromising nature, and the vindictiveness that regularly caused him to lose focus on the bigger picture of what he was trying to achieve.

This impressive biography demonstrates that while Peckinpah’s often violent and conflicted films reflected their director’s insecurities and obsessions, they were also brought in the world in spite of them. The gung-ho title chosen by Weddle contrasts lingeringly with the portrait of Peckinpah eventually developed. Sure, we hear all about Peckinpah the iconoclast, the intensely creative tough guy who lived a life as unpredictable as one of his trigger-happy hardmen. However, Weddle’s blunt insight and astonishing range of sources (including discussions with James Coburn, Martin Scorsese, Roger Ebert, Charlton Heston, Ernest Borgnine, and a bunch of surviving Peckinpahs) means we’re also privy to a different side of “Bloody Sam.” We see Peckinpah the bitter child, the hopeless romantic whose serial seduction of women is really eclipsed by his insecurity around them, the deluded father and (perhaps hardest for Weddle to concede) the squandered talent. Weddle carefully explains these personae while keeping pop-psychoanalytic speculation to a pleasingly minimum. Anecdotes of the director’s turbulent family life and professional relationships alone communicate a vision of an intense, troubled man capable of both a childlike love and generosity, and thoughtless cruelty.

bunch_holdenThis is a long and almost compulsively detailed book, and in several sections Weddle’s prose slips out of gear, stalling between the momentous, novelistic cadences of its opening chapter and those of the perfunctory fact-checker, as the author quibbles over details he is at pains to render interesting. The sense of being bogged down in detail rather than being treated to it, however, is alleviated by the halfway point as Weddle recounts the astonishing studio wars fought over many of Peckinpah’s later productions—wars the director fought in tandem with those he waged against himself and those who cared for him. Additionally, Weddle gleefully captures the excitement of 60s and 70s filmmaking culture in a number of wonderful anecdotes, including one in which Marie Peckinpah, first of the Peckinpah wives, slams the phone down on Marlon Brando, having taken his voice for one of Sam’s goofy impressions.

As Weddle’s description of this troubled visionary of the Western becomes more distinct, it’s clear he has a task on his hands keeping Sam likable enough to propel us from page to page while also committing to an accurate historical and psychological portrait. Somewhat questionable is his willingness to downplay Peckinpah’s extra-marital escapades and general callousness toward women.

cable_hoguePerhaps Weddle is merely trying to convey some of the director’s own high spirits at various moments, yet this critical blind-spot contrasts with his acidic and apparently objective cataloging of the failings of the women in Peckinpah’s life, particularly his mother and his sister. A dubious brood at best, the Peckinpah women appear as narcissists, headcases and possessive furies, always settling some otherwise long-forgotten score. Peckinpah’s indiscretions—even his ferocious drinking problem—never receive this kind of venom. The cataloging of the director’s affairs, outbursts, and the first wife he trod thoroughly underfoot, comes smoothed over by cultural relativism. One gets the impression that when Sam’s women are vile it’s individual malice, but when the man himself acts up he’s merely caught in the cultural tide.

high_countryWeddle’s excitement for Peckinpah’s too infrequently realized creative visions also leads him to speak, perhaps unfairly, in disparaging terms of the so-called “movie brat” generation of Spielberg and Lucas that assumed center stage throughout the 1980s. The blockbuster years may have changed tastes, but a boozy, coke-addled Peckinpah didn’t have much to entice viewers’ appetites anyway (as he sent his lead James Coburn out to shoot scenes for him so he could lay sprawled in his trailer with a sinus full of snow).

Overall, however, these are minor blemishes on a remarkable and honest piece of work: Weddle is largely willing to admit Sam’s failings as both a director and a human being, and it’s a more profound admission for his success in communicating Peckinpah’s brilliance for much of the book.

By If They Move’s conclusion, there’s a tendency to feel quite sorry for the many people in the orbit of this man who, according to one of his enraged producers, “did things that you can never take back” (489). Accompanying this is a tendency to feel David Weddle has produced something special: not only a fascinating read for Peckinpah fans and film buffs alike, but a valuable contribution to the written history of film production and personality.  4 / 5