2007 TIFF Update #3: "Standing Room Only"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
For Saturday, September 8, 2007

First, let me say itís great to see Roger Ebert back at the festival this year. There was a gaping hole in the press corps last year as a result of Rogerís absence. While Roger still hasnít regained his ability to speak, thereís no question that his ďvoiceĒ is back. He has returned to full reviewing status and his website is once again alive with new writings and musings. His public appearance in April at his Overlooked Film Festival was the first step in his coming back into the public eye. His arrival in Toronto marks another, major move forward. Regardless of how often you agree or disagree with him, thereís no denying that he has been the most influential film critic in the past two decades. Plus, heís a genuinely nice, down-to-Earth human being. (I still remember walking the streets of Toronto with him ten years ago; he would stop and sign every autograph requested.) No matter what else goes wrong or right at this yearís festival, Rogerís return will remain one of the highlights.

Todayís three films have generated a lot of attention and drawn huge crowds. Two possess a Western flavor and the third hops on the bandwagon of a growing number of films that use current U.S. foreign policy as a springboard for a thriller. (For an example of this sort of thing being done well, see The Kingdom, which is not playing at the festival but opens on September 28.) The only real connective tissue among these films is that all were highly anticipated, well attended, and generated sharply divided opinions about their merit.

Expecting normalcy from a Coen Brothers production is a pointless endeavor, but anticipating brilliance isnít outlandish. Their latest feature, which has about zero box office potential, provides moments of the latter and a little of the former. Itís mostly a quirky road trip that accomplishes what the Coens do best - seamlessly merging drama, violence, and quirky humor into a whole. However, following their own off-road trail, Joel and Ethan decides that just because a story is worth telling, it doesnít demand a clean ending. This is a decision that will infuriate some members of the audience. Done right, I have always believed open ended conclusions can be assets, and I think thatís the case here. Nevertheless, those who hissed at John Sayles Limbo or declared the finale of The Sopranos to be a tease will not be pleased by how No Country for Old Men elects to wrap up its diverse storylines.

The movie essentially follows three characters whose paths are destined to cross. Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is a heartless killer who - as we see early in the proceedings - is dangerous even when handcuffed and under police guard. He wanders the plains of Texas, killing pretty much everyone he encounters except those lucky enough to win a coin toss in his presence. Moss (Josh Brolin channeling Nick Nolte) is an ex-welder who, while on a hunting trip, stumbles across a drug deal gone bad. There are a lot of bodies, a truck full of ďMexican brown,Ē and a suitcase of cash. Moss takes the latter but eventually wishes he hadnít since the surviving owners want it back. Meanwhile, local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is drawn into all of this because Chigurh escapes from one of his deputies and the drug deal massacre happens in his territory.

The Coens - brothers Ethan and Joel, who are working from the source material of Cormac McCarthyís novel, know how a thing or two about pacing, and itís relentless here. The story is full of unexpected twists and switchbacks. Like Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, the filmmakers donít want viewers to become too comfortable with any of the characters - they might not be around for long. This is not a comedy (at least not in the sense that Raising Arizona and Intolerable Cruelty are), but that doesnít keep the Coens from inserting little moments of dry, dark humor, many of which are the result of Tommy Lee Jonesí laconic wit.

The leads all do tremendous jobs. Javier Bardem is unforgettable with his shoulder length mane of dark hair, his remorseless expression, and his ever-present high-pressure air gun. Chigurh is the kind of guy you wouldnít want to meet in the middle of nowhere, let alone in a dark alley. Terms like ďmercyĒ have no meaning for him - he neither asks for nor gives quarter. Tommy Lee Jones is his usual reliable self; itís hard to ask for someone to be more comfortable in these boots. And Josh Brolin is unrecognizable as the beleaguered Moss. Kelly Macdonald (as Mossí wife) and Woody Harrelson (as a cock-sure bounty hunter) provide effective supporting turns.

If thereís one thing that can always be said of a Coen Brothers film, itís that conventional rules and expectations can be jettisoned. Thatís certainly the case here, with a Western thatís not a Western, a crime thriller thatís not a crime thriller, and a comedy thatís not a comedy. Like Fargo, the movie delights in making viewers scratch their heads. And, while the ending may be a sore point for some, it will have others chuckling and nodding their heads appreciatively (albeit perhaps after a brief ďWTF?Ē when the end credits begin to roll). Thatís what good cinema is expected to do.

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Would that I could heap the same praise upon Gavin Hoodís Rendition, a political thriller with aspirations of being so much more that it is. The film treads into the minefield of debate that exists surrounding the question of Constitutional rights versus National Security. Some day, someone is going to make a very good movie about these issues - one that will take a hard look at the dangers inherent in not walking the fine tightrope that exists. Rendition, however, approaches the subject playing with a stacked anti-National Security deck and a script that is half-baked. Hood has staked out a position and defended it in a shockingly unsubtle way. Instead of experiencing a movie thatís seriously interested in getting into all of the pluses and minuses of the policy of ďextreme rendition,Ē we get a simplistic storyline thatís more interested in sermonizing and demonizing than existing in the real world where things arenít as clear-cut as the movie would like us to believe.

ďExtreme renditionĒ refers to the American policy of shipping detainees to prisons not on U.S. soil so they are not subject to due process and can be tortured as a means of eliciting information. To say that this policy is controversial is to understate the matter. Proponents will argue that valuable intelligence has been gained from these interrogations, and lives have been saved. Opponents make the equally valid argument that the tactics are inhumane and they are at times being used on innocent victims. For a country that prides itself on a judicial motto ďinnocent until proven guilty,Ē this seems hypocritical. Hood and his screenwriter, Kelley Sane, obviously agree with those who believe rendition is a gross abuse of power.

The film introduces several threads of a storyline that will eventually be interwoven. In South Africa, Egyptian-American Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) is getting on a plane to return to Chicago, where his pregnant wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), and young son await him. In a nameless North African country, CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is involved in investigations surrounding a terrorist bombing that killed his partner. In Washington, a senior CIA official (Meryl Streep) is provided with intelligence that El-Ibrahimi received a cell phone call from the terrorist claiming responsibility for the North African attack. She orders El-Ibrahimi subjected to rendition. He ends up in North Africa, where Freeman is commanded to observe his interrogation by local officials and report any information back to her. When Freeman voices concerns that El-Ibrahimi might be innocent, she informs him that his job description doesnít include making such determinations. Meanwhile, an increasingly distraught Isabella goes to Washington, where she recruits help from an old flame (Peter Sarsgaard) who is the top aid to a U.S. Senator (Alan Arkin).

For a while, Rendition looks like it might be willing to enter the quagmire that exists around this issue, but it backs off at the last minute, taking the easy way out. Some might argue that uncertainty remains about El-Ibrahimiís innocence, but Hood goes out of his way to indicate a lack of culpability even if he doesnít provide clear evidence for exoneration. While Rendition cavalierly tosses out justifications for the title tactic (ďbecause of this, there are 7000 people alive in London who would otherwise be deadĒ), itís clear that all of the filmís passion lies on the other side of the fence. I have no problem with any movie making a political stance. What I object to is Renditionís reduction of complex arguments into simplistic ones.

The acting varies from fine to superlative. Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon are a little flat. Both have done substantially better work in the past. Meryl Streep is okay in a role thatís laughably one-dimensional. On the other hand, Peter Sarsgaard is terrific as the Senatorís aid and Alan Arkin steals every scene heís in. Igor Naor, who plays the North African interrogator, is also effective.

The script is weak, especially during the final act. Several things that happen in the closing 15 minutes stretch credulity past the breaking point. Something clever is done regarding the chronology of one subplot; itís too bad that aspect of the film isnít more compelling. For director Hood, whose previous feature was Tsotsi, this is a surprisingly large misstep. The film will likely receive some positive notices because critics will applaud its politics. While I personally have severe reservations about the policy of extreme rendition, they are not going to cause me to be lenient on this sloppy production.

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The longest film Iím seeing at this yearís festival (both in terms of title length and running length) is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seems every bit as long or longer than its 160 minutes. Parts of the movie are brilliant in a Terrence Malick-inspired way, but the lugubrious middle section is badly in need of the hand of a ruthless editor. The Assassination of Jesse James starts and finishes strong, but it will likely loose numerous viewers during its frustrating, meandering middle section that spends so much time fleshing out secondary characters that it often seems to forget about the title individuals. Ironically, itís the movieís half-hour coda that contains the most compelling material - material that often feels rushed and truncated.

One of the aspects of the life (and death) of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) addressed by this overblown drama is the way celebrity can take on a life of its own. Viewed in a cold, hard light, James was a thief and a killer. However, even in his day, myth had overtaken reality. He was seen as a dashing, Robin Hood type who was vaunted in some quarters as a hero. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) found this out the hard way when he killed James. His initial expectation was that he would be greeted worldwide by thunderous applause. The reaction was quite different. After a period of curiosity, public opinion turned against him. The filmís title, in which he is referred to as ďThe Coward Robert Ford,Ē reflects this.

The first half-hour of The Assassination of Jesse James is great stuff. Itís September 7, 1881, and a train robbery is about to occur. James is 34 years old. This will be the final act of crime in a twelve year span for the James Gang, and will become known to history as the Blue Cut Train Robbery. Jesse and his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), still run the gang, but all of the other original members are either dead or in prison. So, accompanying them on this robbery are a bunch of locals. Robert Ford is among them. Heís a hug fan of Jamesí, having idolized him since his youth. He also appears ill-equipped to be an outlaw. Frank says to him: ďYou donít have the ingredients, Son.Ē Nevertheless, he worms himself into Jesseís trust and becomes an off-again/on-again companion until the day when an act half driven by fear and half by avarice leads him down the road to infamy.

The problem with the film is that the section bookended by the train robbery and Jesseís death is ponderous. It concentrates on lesser characters who arenít that interesting. Character development during this period for both Jesse and Robert is uneven. Ford is something of an enigma. How he became transformed from Jesseís biggest fan to a man who viewed him with envy and jealousy is never really shown. By spending so much time with individuals who capture neither our interest nor our sympathy, director Andrew Dominikís film veers off track. He gets it back on the rails before it rushes into the station for the ending and extended epilogue, but not before a lot of time has seemingly been wasted.

The film has three undeniable strengths. The acting, especially by Brad Pitt as a world-weary Jesse and Casey Affleck as the increasingly bitter Robert, is excellent. This is the same Pitt who, as a character actor early in his career, earned raves, and Affleck buries himself in the role. Support is provided by Sam Shepard as Frank (whoís only in about the first 30 minutes); Mary-Louise Parker as Jesseís wife; and Zoey Deschanel in a small-but-critical part as Robertís late-film love interest. Vying with the acting for top honors is the filmís cinematography, credited to the veteran Roger Deakins. His landscape shots of the open plains of Missouri are astounding, and there are countless breathtaking visual compositions throughout. Finally, in a departure from the norm, the voiceover narrative is informative, clever, and intelligent. It adds to the filmís structure rather than being redundant and extraneous.

The Assassination of Jesse James is too long. It wants to play like a sprawling novel that provides insight into all of the characters, not just the main ones. But films are not novels and this approach encourages viewer apathy. Also curious is that the most intriguing material in the movie - the way that public opinion toward Ford changes after Jamesí assassination - is given short shrift. Thatís when the movie comes alive and becomes vital. Thatís also when it ends. As Westerns go, this feels like the kind of thing Terrence Malick might produce if his creative powers were ebbing. Itís far less engaging than the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake and concentrates more on the details than the broad picture. Thereís a place for this sort of thing in the genre, but The Assassination of Jesse James is too protracted and oblique to represent it effectively.

© 2007 James Berardinelli