I can’t quite work out what genre this might haphazardly slot into, but it sure looks intriguing;
I undertook my first visit to the BFI since I moved last night and it was a little odd to be heading away from home rather than stopping off en-route back to Richmond – I’m sure I’ll adapt. I think one of the most interesting American actors around at the moment is Casey Affleck so it was a pleasure to catch his new film ‘Gone Baby Gone‘ last night followed by the usual interview and Q&A, this time conducted by BFI Festival Director Sandra Hebron. The film is the directing debut of his superstar brother Ben Affleck who is a figure who would normally require some lethal combination of automatic weapons, innocent young puppies, weeping orphans and dum-dum rounds to get me to the cinema regardless of whether or not he was in front of or behind the camera. However dear reader yours truly has just choked down a generous portion of humble pie as this was a promising debut with another outstanding performance from Affleck Jr.
The film revolves around a child kidnapping case in working class Boston which caused its release to be delayed in the UK due to the alleged similarities to the McCann case. It’s a grim and grueling trawl through the contemporary underbelly of the sixth generation Irish city as local private investigator Patrick Kenzie attempts to track down and retrieve the missing daughter of Beatrice McReady, a crime which receives the usual hysterical levels of media scrutiny. The extended family of the child feel that Patrick has a better chance to retrieve their daughter due to his local connections and ability to reach and speak to residents who are unwilling to co-operate with the police. It emerges that Beatrice is involved in some low level drug dealing, is an abusive mother and has fallen in with some truly nasty criminals which raises the question whether the child would want to be rescued…
The film had generated some positive reviews but such are my prejudices I was still sceptical but the opportunity to see Casey Affleck in person was too enticing – given his performance in ‘The Assassination Of Jess James By The Coward Robert Ford’ I think we have something of a new Montgomery Clift on our hands, a sensitive yet slightly unhinged actor with a quiet intensity to rival Daniel Day Lewis. ‘Gone Baby Gone‘ was OK, some nice moments with a generally low key directorial style which suited the subject matter. Affleck had attracted a pretty heavyweight cast (Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Madigan) and the film has a nice conclusion which poses a serious moral conundrum about what you’d do in the same situation. Casey and Ben where both raised in working class Boston so the argot and detail of the city, its inhabitants and environment is well realised and feels very authentic. As a whole while a bit cliched in places its worth a couple of hours of your time. It reminded me a lot of this which is a film I loved when I first saw it, I should try to track down a copy on DVD.
The big surprise of the interview and Q&A was that Ben Affleck turned up as well. I actually warmed to him a little as he spoke quite lucidly about the film, how nervous and unsure of himself he was and how relived he felt once the ‘ordeal’ of making it was over. Typical of brothers they also frequently insulted each other which was funny, particularly when Casey was asked if big brother Ben ever shouted at him on set. ‘No, not really’ he replied, ‘If he wanted to punish me he’d make me watch ‘Armageddon‘ or something’ – cue big laugh. Someone in the audience also brazenly stated how nice it was to see Casey in a film where he could understand what he was saying <he has a reputation for mumbling> which he took with good humour. Oh, and if you’re wondering what I’ve got against Ben Affleck then I have just one word for you – ‘Gigli‘. I’ve seen some terrible movies in my time but that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.
That’s quite a title. This is a movie that has really snuck up on me, I was aware that Pitt had made a western which was generally going down well with critics and at small festivals but was evidently distracted by some other releases that caught my eye. When I released that the director was the guy who made ‘Chopper’ my interest was piqued, and the final decision to catch it at the cinema was cemented by a hagiographic review in Sight & Sound which effectively named it as possibly the best western since the 1970’s. Assassination focuses in on the final days of ultimate betrayal and murder of Jesse James, one of the West’s more enduring mythical figures. In a winter bound and frosty Iowa of 1882 we are taken into the dying days of the James gang, the majority if whom have been killed or imprisoned. Increasingly isolated and paranoid Jesse James plans one final score with some of his remaining allies, including a Robert Ford who has idolised the myth if not the man of James since his youth.
Let’s make this clear shall we – this is not only possibly the best new film of the year but also one of the best westerns I have ever seen, and I’ve seen all the key pictures by the masters of the genre – Ford, Anthony Mann, Leone, Howard Hawks, Peckinpah and of course Eastwood. The performances are first rate – I’ve always been ambivalent about Pitt, with the exception of Fight Club I haven’t seen him deliver a more that average performance but he is outstanding in this, quietly conveying the almost transcendental acceptance of his betrayal and death. Casey Affleck also shines with his hesitant, paradoxical and mysterious portrayal of the ‘coward’ ford. Sam Rockwell and an early scene with the great Sam Shepherd also provide able support in this sure-fire best picture Oscar nominee. The film also boasts a wonderful score by Nick Cave (who does a cameo, appropriately enough as a musician toward the end of the film) and Warren Ellis which effortlessly assimilates into the wonderful photography by Coen’s regular DP Roger Deakins – a Oscar nomination for sure and if there’s any justice he’ll be talking that statuette home come February. It has elements of Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller and has the majesty of Malick’s Days of Heaven – no mean feat. Many of the critics have praised it’s similarities to Mali work, the stunning photography, the voiceover, the distanced and measured pace and I have to add my voice to the chorus.
So then, Westerns. Far from my favourite genre to be honest, (no, not even the ‘Classic Westerns’ which I have to say, it’s a private Peterborough joke...) and the fact that once every ten years a good, solid film comes along that happens to be a Western inevitably results in ‘is the western genre been re-kindled?’ opinion pieces. Well, I have to agree with Paterson and sadly advise you that no it hasn’t. One, even two moderately successful films does not make a revival, especially when you consider the hundreds of Westerns that the major and minor studios were churning out on a yearly basis from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. It’s also not strictly speaking for me a revisionist western – they always strike me as films that concentrate on setting the historical record straight, usually in relation to the treatment of the native Americans in films like Dances With Wolves, with a combination of contemporary comment as in Soldier Blue with the obvious parallels with My Lai and other massacres of native American women and children. Home of the Brave indeed.
Assassination is in a different sphere, it’s much more of mediation on life and death than a mere inquiry into current trends and concerns, although the examination of the nature of celebrity and the cult of fame obviously has extant overtones. The evocation of the period is stylised rather than assimilating the brutal, dirty realism of say Deadwood – again this deviates it from the revisionist agenda and places the picture out into an area all its own. I think it was Eastwood who said that the Western and Jazz are really the only wo art-forms which can be considered as uniquely American. This is a first class example of the genre and comes highly recommended.