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February 07, 2008

Richard D. North on two masterful - and over-long - films about betrayal: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - Andrew Dominik; Lust, Caution - Ang Lee

Posted by Richard D. North

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik
certificate 15, 2007

Lust, Caution
Directed by Ang Lee
certificate 18, 2008

Here are two masterful and celebrated films - both mightily over-length - which deal with betrayal. What else is new? It's a good theme. The curious thing about them is the degree to which they fail to involve.

In Jesse James we have Brad Pitt being quite convincing as an intelligently brutal killer facing what he suspects is his end-game. Once again (pace American Gangster, 2007 [reviewed here]) there's the problem that our proper response should be that the sooner the bastard is gunned down, the better it will be for everyone. In this movie, "sooner" took a very long time. It was given the attention which might have been more appropriate to Hitler's demise in his bunker.

In mitigation, you could say that there is an interesting interior game going on. The film's Big Idea - revealed too late for its own good - is that Jesse was so admired by the mass media of his day that it was his assassin who incurred opprobrium, not him. The film can't get into this territory without being open to the very charge it is seeking to make: that Jesse was over-admired.

To be sure, the film's other theme, which was done quite convincingly, also deals with the problem of the gangster-hero. This is that Jesse was toppled by Ford, a star-struck youngster and would-be gang member whose mind was turned to hatred when he realised that Jesse did not think of him as a proper mobster. Ford was presented as a simpleton who hero-worshipped the media's Jesse but became Jesse's real-world enemy the more he knew him.

Indeed, Jesse thought Ford was so little of a serious criminal that he would make a decent bodyguard. That's to say: Jesse knew his real associates would betray him, but thought that Ford was cut from different cloth. All the film's characters are so numb that you have to deduce what they are feeling from what they do, and that's pretty economical.

Constant emoting and endless gushing is the curse of plenty of movies. Here one wouldn't have minded having some of them. And it might have been nice to have had a bit more of Mary-Louise Parker as Zee, Jesse's wife. This is especially true since it looks as though Dominik has been able to make her audible, which is more than the makers of The West Wing ever got out of this fabulously penumbraic actress.

I don't suppose the last days of a petty regime such as Jesse's were especially funny, but this was such a humourless and dour piece that one rather longed for it to be over. Even the glorious scenery was only deployed to add to the gloom, so one ended up wanting to be shot of that too.

Lust, Caution comes, as it were, with a health warning. We know Ang Lee, don't we? He gave us Brokebank Mountain (2005) [reviewed here] in which violent - or at least rough and precipitate - sex blossoms into unexpected, unlikely and sensuous lust and romance. Fans of anal sex were given what is now almost a predictable Ang Lee treat. Oh goody.

There was always a chance that he would return to his earlier form, as in The Ice Storm (1997), Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), or The Wedding Banquet (1993), but it wasn't to be.

In this film, we are taken back to a world we now know well. It is the Asia we met in Indochine (1992), In the Mood for Love (2000), The Scent of the Green Papaya (1993), The Last Emperor (1987) and Ang Lee's own Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and plenty more. Erotic, gorgeous, violent, mysterious - you know the scene, and I frankly love most of it.

There's no doubt that the controversial sex scenes are beautifully done, and they may even be necessary to the story. And here we hit a couple of quite important snags. The story's pacing feels all wrong, as does the characterisation.

It is giving no secrets away to say that this is a tale of fatal attraction and beyond being shown the physical acts which are supposed to make this credible, no effort is expended on taking us into the characters' confidence. I don't think this is just the problem of oriental inscrutability. It's more that I didn't believe that that woman fell in love with that man, or vice versa. What's worse, there's no real tension as they drift toward the last, crucial and deeply improbable betrayal.

Do you remember The Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1985)? Maybe you watched it as I did following its being the free DVD with the Guardian the other day. It's a cult gaol cell classic which tells of a homosexual cross-dresser who adores a movie about a Nazi collaborator. He admires the silver screen heroine's devotion to her gorgeous beau and the way she resists the demands of the resistance to exploit her position to top him.

I forget how the monochrome movie-within-a-movie ends, but back in the "real" world of the dreamer's cell, he's banged up with a resistance fighter who thinks the dreamer is avoiding life's bigger issues. Of course, in the end, the homosexualís love of his cell-mate leads him to overcome his erstwhile indifference to causes. The message may even be that causes are just love expressed differently anyway.

This is a grander and happier version of the theme that we have in Lust, Caution. In Ang Lee's film (and presumably the short story on which it is based), the girl in the end just makes a mad choice. One simply canít see any kind of sense in it. It's hard to see it as moral. More importantly, by the time she gets to make it, one's lost interest.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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