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Watch your back, Jesse: (l-r) Pitt and Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Believing the Legend

By Shawn Stone

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Directed by Andrew Dominik

Jesse James was a no-good son of a bitch who, after the Civil War was over, wouldn’t put down his guns, and wrapped his subsequent murders and robberies in a false cloak of Confederate glory. He may have been kind to his wife and children, but he was hell on everyone else. Of course, he was lionized in dime novels that painted fantastic (i.e., false) portraits of his, and his brother Frank’s, exploits across the Missouri plains.

That reality is the starting point for this stately, visually beautiful and dramatically stark picture about the last months of Jesse James (Brad Pitt). The story begins as the James gang prepares for their final robbery, and ends long after Jesse is dead, murdered at the hand of an erstwhile admirer, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). The film moves along in a deceptively leisurely fashion, all the while building a mood of creeping dread.

The opening of the film, with the gang waiting in the woods for nightfall and the arrival of their target, a train, is representative. The scene goes on and on, with the men chattering about nothing—especially the gregarious Robert Ford, a 19-year-old who desperately, painfully wants to be liked by Jesse and Frank James (Sam Shepard, laconic as ever). It’s a plowboy’s picnic until nightfall and the robbery, when the meanness of the James brothers as they rob the train casts a pall on the mood.

The film moves along at a deceptively leisurely, Altman-esque pace. Director Andrew Dominik emphasizes the silences and stillness of rural 19th-century life, which only serves to make the inevitable violence more shocking as, one by one, the men—on the run from the law—are caught, or kill each other.

Eventually, the drama boils down to Jesse and the Ford brothers, Robert and Charley (Sam Rockwell). By this time, the oft-injured, increasingly paranoid Jesse becomes even more violent and unpredictable. (He’s got good reason to be paranoid: Robert is working for the law by this point.) He becomes a monster—the exact opposite of what his legend suggests.

It’s a remarkable performance by Pitt, easily his best. His subtle shifts from jocularity to viciousness are jarring, and utterly convincing. Affleck is also compelling: His Bob Ford transforms himself from whiny kid to confident gunslinger, though one with a disturbing immature streak that surfaces at telling moments.

There’s a famous line in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In that very downbeat film, the hero kills the villain, but lets a crusading, physically weak lawyer take the credit. The lawyer not only goes on to a brilliant political career, he marries the hero’s girl—while the hero dies alone, forgotten. The “print the legend” line is a newspaperman’s reaction to finally hearing the true story, and the message is clear: The people intimately involved know the truth, but the public can only accept the convenient fiction.

In The Assassination of Jesse James, the implications are arguably darker. The people intimately involved—the Ford brothers—begin to believe that what they did was wrong. The horror of being with Jesse in those last months, the cruelty and viciousness of the man, all these memories fade away as they come to believe they were the ones who did wrong. Charley begins to emotionally unravel, while Robert, after first lashing out at his critics, retreats into himself. Infected by the sickness of a culture that worships someone like Jesse James, they’re lost.

One of the questions this quintessentially American film leaves audiences with is, when, if ever, was Robert Ford a coward?

Measure of a Man

Michael Clayton

Directed by Tony Gilroy

Much like The Conversation, Network, or any other movie you can think of that concentrates on what lies between the killer instinct and everything else, Michael Clayton delivers a stunning dissertation on morality and ethics in the global economy. Screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy seems to have been weaned on the scripts of Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, so potent a deadly force are his dialogues. God bless his mother for that.

The movie immediately immerses you in a sense of confusion and paranoia. Rain and snow swirl outside a cab window, city lights beam garish neon on the glass, and a disembodied voice thunders on about filth and bloodied hands. Distilled, this is the emotional breakdown of one Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), chief litigator for the prestigious law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, which is striving to swab up the remains of a years-long lawsuit involving its client, the Monsanto-like U North, and the several hundred plaintiffs blaming their cancers on one of U North’s miracle products. Lead partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) dispenses Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to collect Edens and, basically, do the necessary damage control.

As Clayton himself explains, he’s more of a janitor than an attorney, a hired gun who will never make partner but enables the other guys at the firm to maintain the whiteness of their shoes. And while it’s clear that Michael doesn’t have a major problem with the necessities of his job, he is—like Arthur—at a point at which he’s tired of doing it. Arthur’s words of impending doom reflect on Michael’s own problems: He’s struggling to pay off a massive loan to some shady characters; he’s a divorced dad trying hard to be present for his son; and most pressing of all, he’s 45 and, despite his gift, going nowhere fast.

Michael’s normal modus operandi becomes something more sinister when he realizes that Arthur has happened upon devastating info about the U North case. Suddenly, strange cars begin shadowing him, phone lines are tapped, and U North lead attorney Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) starts using her boardroom panache for decidedly more ominous purposes. With remarkable restraint, Gilroy lets all this play out deliberately and suspensefully.

As in Syriana, Clooney presents a man far removed from the easy-come, easy-go swagger of Danny Ocean. It’s a compelling turn. There’s a great moment when Michael’s in-car GPS goes blurry, and his frustration with it seems to underline a profound sense of loss (and of being lost) in his own life. Clooney has a superb ear for Gilroy’s meaty, spare dialogue—as does Wilkinson who, like Peter Finch in Network, has to deliver reams of oratory and make us believe that there is genius within the madness. He does. But my favorite performance belongs to Swinton, as an utterly soulless lawyer whose cool exterior belies sleepless nights spent practicing her responses and presentations. The juxtaposition of shots of Karen feverishly practicing her lines as she chooses her wardrobe with scenes in which she is calmly addressing those lines to a boardroom of old white men is humorous, but also somehow poignant. And the scene in which her business transaction with a hit man turns, well, deadly, is at once both shocking and hysterical.

Michael Clayton is the type of film in which you need to pay attention: It’s dense and wordy and joltingly paced. Gilroy’s tale is intelligent, audacious and never lacking for surprises, sucking you in and keeping its grip on you long after the final credits have run.

—Laura Leon

Clothes Horse

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Directed by Shekhar Kapur

In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, the sequel to Shekhar Kapur’s much-admired Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen (Cate Blanchett) faces new challenges to her throne and to the sovereignty of England. Chief among them is Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà), who is scheming to execute Elizabeth and turn England into a Catholic fiefdom. Catholic sympathizers with ties to France have infiltrated the court, and her cousin, Mary of Scotland (Samantha Morton), is plotting with sundry malcontents across the continent. As if that weren’t enough, she is frustrated in her flirtation with Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), who courts her favor while simultaneously pursuing her favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish).

Despite an interlude of nine years, director Kapur reprises the elements that made Elizabeth so watchable: the hothouse atmosphere of palace intrigue; Elizabeth’s conflict between being a woman as well as the ruler of her country; the incessant need for vigilance; and even more noticeably this time, Elizabeth’s extravagant wardrobe. Yet whereas Elizabeth was a thrilling period and political biopic, true in spirit even in its necessary changes to the historical record, The Golden Age is mere costume drama, albeit an impressively decked-out one. The change in emphasis from sizzling gender politics to disjointed set pieces can probably be attributed to William Nicholson (Gladiator), who co-wrote the script with Michael Hirst, who penned the original. Nicholson’s audience-pandering influence is obvious in the film’s emphasis on eye-popping poppycock: During the approach of the fearsome Spanish Armada, Elizabeth is shown in armor and long, elvish hair as she rallies her troops in a fashion more befitting a character from Lord of the Rings. For the climactic (and choppily edited) battle-at-sea sequence, there’s even a cameo by Shadowfax.

Kapur’s visual talents make the film intermittently exciting: The downfall of Mary Stuart is chillingly captured in just a few scenes (Morton is hauntingly beatific) and the secret conspiracy from France is potently creepy (especially Rhys Ifans as a mysterious cleric). But the film fails in two important aspects: The confusing subterfuge undermines its parallels to today’s climate of religious fanaticism, and Elizabeth’s romance with Raleigh is unwieldy and unconvincing. Though perfectly cast, Owen’s Raleigh is more set decoration than full-blooded adventurer, due to the contrived writing. Blanchett, however, is a powerhouse, dominating even the queen’s formidably lavish attire to sustain the monarchal momentum she created in Elizabeth.

—Ann Morrow

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