One More Time with Feeling (2016)

One More Time with Feeling (2016) movie poster

director Andrew Dominik
viewed: 04/03/2017

A study in contrasts: 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth and 2016’s One More Time with Feeling. Both films are documentaries about Nick Cave recording an album. In 20,000 Days on Earth it is his 2013 album “Push the Sky Away”; in One More Time with Feeling it’s the 2016 album “Skeleton Tree”. The first is in color, the latter in black-and-white and 3-D.

The real difference is what happened between these two pictures, the death of Cave’s son Arthur in a fall from a cliff at the age of 15.

Cave is a different man, one who was always absorbed of darkness, but now leavened in loss and trauma. We see Cave’s wife, the beautiful Susie Bick and Arthur’s handsome twin, Earl appears briefly. Cave himself has deeply shaken by what has happened to Arthur, and while director Andrew Dominik engages Cave in conversation, the tragedy itself isn’t something that he wants to directly articulate.

Nick Cave and collaborator Warren Ellis scored Dominik’s remarkable 2007 Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s hard to know if this created an affinity between them, allowing access to the grieving process, the therapeutic return to work and art, but it’s conceivable.

These two films exist wrapped around Arthur’s death, the first by happenstance, this one by choice.

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Killing Them Softly (2012) movie poster

director Andrew Dominik
viewed: 03/30/2013

It’s a very rare occasion that I find myself watching a movie on DVD and regretting that I didn’t manage to see it in the theater when it was out.  Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is one that I should have seen on the big screen.

I had planned to, being a particular fan of his The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Chopper (2000), the only reason I can say is that it flew through our local cinemas in less than two weeks.  It also didn’t get any love at the Academy Awards though a lot of critics liked it.  For my money, it’s certainly one of last year’s best films, though having just seen it now, it would end up on my current “best of” list.  These are exactly the kind of films that aren’t well enough appreciated in their time, but will go on to be admired and perhaps studied in the future as history and retrospect catch up with them.

Adapted from a 1970’s crime novel “Cogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, it’s pulp fiction at heart.  It’s a caper story, of sorts, with two lowlife bottom feeder criminals knocking over a card game and trying to get away with it.  They think that they can get away with it because operator Markie (Ray Liotta) had knocked over his own card game once in the past, and while he more or less got away with it, he foolishly let on that he had been behind it, so now any time his card game gets jacked, the perception would be that he did it or was behind it, so the lowlifes think they got a clever deal.

Unfortunately, this is the mob, and they have guys like Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who get called in to clean up such messes.  And cleaning up such messes basically means killing everybody.

What’s ingenious on Dominik’s part is his setting the film in New Orleans of 2008, the backdrop being played out on television screens all over is the presidential race, Obama’s hope, McCain’s promises, and the hollow echoing words of George W. Bush about the financial crisis that was imploding all around.

It’s not just the background, though.  This criminal operation, from the petty thieves, hypocritical wise guys, bloodless middle men, invisible leaders are all a metaphor for the government and financial industries that are burning all around.  Everyone is complicit.  Everyone is guilty.  And Brad Pitt, the avenging angel, is the cynical but blunt and brutal voice of reason: “Everyone is going to die.”  And most likely hordes of rats are ready to take their place.

Richard Jenkins plays Driver, the squeamish middle man giving Pitt his orders.  He’s so clearly business, doesn’t like to speak the realities of murdering people.  Pitt tells him, in a voice of humanity, that torturing Markie is inhumane.  The best thing to be done is to just kill him nice and clean and put him out of his misery.  He has to die whether he is guilty or not because everyone will think he’s guilty because of his prior crime.

Cogan likes to “kill them softly”, from a distance, not get too personal, so when it comes to killing someone he knows and who will know he’s coming to kill them, he asks for another hit man to come in.  This is Mickey (James Gandolfini), a whoring, crass drunk who can’t sober up long enough to do anything.  Jenkins quibbles over the extra $15K for this additional outside help.  He has to get approval.  It’s business.  Not in the conference room, but in a car under a bridge.

Dominik sees no “hope” in any of the voices on the televisions.  And Pitt clarifies this perspective in the film’s final scene, as Obama wins the election and makes his speech.  It doesn’t matter who is in charge.  It’s all gone to hell and there is no getting back.  It really rang of the complex realities of the financial meltdown as spelled out in the great documentary Inside Job (2010).  All of the institutions are fucked.  They have been for a long time (if not always), with the banks, the accreditation institutions, the university professors and the institutions that they represent, all through Wall Street and all though the White House, the Senate, everywhere.

Those small time crooks.  Just chumps.  Just chum.

Like his other films, Killing Them Softly begs for multiple viewings.  Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it’s not epic and slow.  Rather, it’s quick-paced and relatively terse.  I have to hand it to Brad Pitt.  He’s found a director who uses him very, very well and he’s making movies that will have meaning and staying power for years to come.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Andrew Dominik
viewed: 10/30/07 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Panned pretty hard by numerous critics for being long and slow, Andrew Dominik’s film whose title kind of says it all in terms of its basic narrative, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, still attracted me.  Particularly after reading the review in the San Francisco Chronicle in which critic Peter Hartlaub threw out that “fans of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995)” would like this film where 10 to 1 other filmgoers would hate it, I felt titilated only because I guess that I fell into that 10% fraction.  It’s not that I like slow movies or ponderous ones, but quite recently I felt pretty aggrevated that I missed seeing David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) for fear of sitting through some long slog in the theater for a film that had received decidedly mixed reviews.  It’s the Western aspect too that attracted me, this dying genre.

In preparation, I’d quite recently seen Dominik’s earlier film, Chopper (2001), which was actually also quite interestingly a fictionalized recap of the career of a noted criminal who was, similarly to Jesse James, also a mythologized, mythologizing figure in the media.  Dominik seems particularly interested in this theme.  The Assassination of Jesse James is also deeply about the mythologizing of individuals, both criminals and would-be heroes (as in the case of the Jesse James wannabe of Robert Ford).  This common element is in no ways accidental.  In fact, it is by many means the primary aspect of the narrative.

The film is based on a novel (that I haven’t read) by Robert Benson, and follows an oft-told tale of the title’s description, scripted many times in magazines, books, films, and literature, and this very fact, its oft-toldness is what Dominik is interested in.  He doesn’t seek “the truth” per se, meaning the most valid knowledge that can be extracted from historical elements, but rather is satisfied with yet another “mythologizing” piece.  I say this because both Chopper and this film are not meant to be some definitive word on the subject matter.  Chopper even states quite clearly that it is a fictionalized telling of things, as this film is based on a novel, not a non-fictional recount, one could glean similar approaches.  Again, one that is clearly deliniating itself from non-fiction or documentation with some objectivity implied.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the character of Robert Ford, James’ eventual killer, from his introduction to James and his gang by way of their final train robbery, an eager though not well-liked and begrudgingingly accepted member of the gang for this one adventure.  Ford had been since childhood, obsessed with the image and stories of Jesse James as reported and aggrandized by the media of the time, magazines and books that created the living legend in his own time and existence.  So Ford’s dream come true is lived out on the night after the robbery, hanging out with his idol, living his childhood fantasy.

Ford is in no ways disappointed with the reality of the myth.  He utterly idealizes and idolizes James, but Ford’s general demeanor, a tone of childish pretense barely covering his broad and deep insecurities and snippiness, makes him an ill-liked figure in anyone’s company, and he becomes an object of teasing and derision (one that as the youngest of three brothers and at least one sister he has experienced all his life) and is ultimately tossed aside.

James, well-cast in Brad Pitt, suggests the easy coolness that has made him a site of mythologizing, one who has long lived his own legend and enjoyed it, but who also, at the age of 34 is world-weary and growingly paranoid, and unsure of how to transition into any other life.  Aware of his myth, but not in control of it, one might say.

As the narrative follows out, in its slow pace (it’s true), the film maintains a slow-burning intensity that really stems from the handling of the characters, developing a growing, almost sickening dread of what is yet to come.  Casey Affleck is excellent as Robert Ford, and the cast in general are quite good.  James’ charm and aspects of goodness are not eclipsed but highly mitigated by his own violence and propensity for ruthlessness and brutality, from beating an innocent child to nearly killing an innocent and honest train clerk.  Dominik portrays his moral duality and yet his qualities as a family man in such a way that his impending death is a heavy and hard thing to wait for.

For Ford, who is driven to this role of assassin by opportunisism and revenge for being slighted and ridiculed, this murder is heinous, killing a friend with a gun that James had given him in James’ own house with his family merely rooms away with James’ back to him in a clearly unprotected stance.  James has a sense of his impending doom and seems to allow the situation to present itself intentionally, but Ford takes the shot and quickly skedaddles down to the telegraph office, already bragging about his deed.

The film follows Ford’s life after this incident, a self-mythologizer extroirdinaire, replaying the event on stage hundreds of times, making a name for himself as a hero and a bringer of justice.  But Ford’s attempts at legend-making backfire ultimately after a few years, as the legend of Jesse James continues to grow in contrast to Ford’s largely cowardly act, and ultimately makes him a pariah.  His own legend, his own myth can be found in this film’s title.

The film ultimately allows for Ford to find some redemption, in acceptance of his act and a maturity that he reaches in understanding his cowardliness and exploitation of his own one time idol beyond idolatry and into his true relationship and friendship with James.  And the poetic justice, the assassination of Robert Ford, by some would-be loser also trying to make a name for himself, offers some true sense of epiphany and almost redemption for Ford in the very end.

I don’t know that I can glean ultimately what Dominik is stating in these films definitively, but rather that it is a fascinating notion, not simply the public’s fascination and idolatry of popular criminals who evolve into legends, but also their own place in that story-telling, in adding to the myth, living the myth, co-scribing the myth both in their actions and in their self-promotion (even in simply story-telling).  It’s a very interesting thing, and truly what I have taken away from this film, which I found to be very compelling, though not really in the same way that Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch’s films struck me.

I’m actually quite fired up to watch a short list of other films about the same story, some of which I have seen before, but each of which comes from a different decade in the 20th century and are directed by notable directors.  So, soon, you should see these films showing up here: Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957), and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  The legend of Jesse James truly is one of the largest myths and realities of the American West.  Dominik’s film, among many of its qualities, is a fascinating meditation on the story and the ways in which that story have become the legend that it has.

Chopper

Chopper (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Andrew Dominik
viewed: 10/26/07

I’d seen this film on video shelves for several years, but didn’t know much about it from when it came out for some reason.  But, I have been anticipating going to see writer/director Andrew Dominik’s much condemned new film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and on a whim I queued this one up to get a sense of the director.

Chopper is interesting material, all new to me.  Chopper is based semi-roughly on a notorious former criminal, Australia’s Mark Brandon Read, whose notoriety is quite fascinating.  The film depicts his story with large doses based on the real story of his life, based on a series of books that he started writing in the 1990’s as he became a popular cultural figure, not just in Australia but the world.

Chopper himself is played with great spark by Eric Bana, who I’d been wondering for some time why he was pulled in for movies.  Now it’s clear.  He’s tremendously good as the ruthless yet oddly if not psychotically inconsistently idealistic killer, torturer, all around criminal.  He’s a wit, but loopy and dangerous to the max.  He’s true to his comrades, even to some crazy extents.

One of the best scenes in the movie is where his best friends in prison turn on him to try to get in on a contract that has been taken out on him.  They suddenly shank him, which he takes as if they were merely thumping his nose or something, trying to talk out the issues rationally and with no judgment whatsoever.  He is stabbed repeatedly throughout the scene but only shows signs of succumbing at the very end.  It’s played with this turgid black humor that exemplifies the nature of Read’s character.  He’s brighter than most but impossible to gauge.

The film itself is pretty good.  The color tinting done throughout seemed a little overdone, with some rooms all green, many all blue, some yellow or red.  I didn’t try to analyze the scheme.  It just seemed a little more than necessary, and occasionally drew me out of the film.

The violence has some of that post-modern irony that Pulp Fiction (1994), flippant and shocking in the way its played out.  But for the truth and fiction of the real Mark “Chopper” Brandon Read, this is much the point as anything.  A fascination with a ruthlessness that is also tall tale as much as it is meant to display the “reality” of the criminal world.  There is something interesting there, this sense of criminal celebrity, myth and self-mythologizing.  It would tie into his new film in that sense, and so I am still looking forward to seeing it despite its poor reviews.