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Q&A: Andrew Dominik

An online exclusive interview

A still from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford / (Warner Bros.)

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Monday, April 07, 2008


A Little Violence In Your Life

A talk with Andrew Dominik

By Mark Mordue

Maybe it’s the chronic deafness he suffers from, as if the world is arriving intermittently or smudged at his ears. Maybe he’s just more like his subjects than he’d care to admit. Whatever it is, communicating with the Australian film director Andrew Dominik feels about as sudden and temporary as a cat’s passing presence.

Dominik first made an impact back in late 2000 with his debut film Chopper, a criminal biopic that jumped with bogan black comedy and neon aggression. Apart from launching the comedian Eric Bana’s career as a dramatic actor, the movie was a tour de force for the director’s own talents. Dominik’s suitors in Hollywood must have hoped for more of its amphetamine-like charge in his next project. Was he a Down Under Tarantino?

Instead, the 40-year-old director returned in late 2007 with an epic, three-hour cowboy movie titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. (The film was released on DVD in February.) Jesse James was withheld from release by Warner Brothers for nearly two years after it was met with highly mixed audience responses at test screenings, which led to re-editing, more test screenings and a behind-the-scenes power struggle to bring the work to heel.

Yet the film seems to have resisted any capitulation to the Dream Factory’s demands — essentially a desire for more narrative shape like a Clint Eastwood movie, and less poetic dreaminess à la Terrence Malick — to stay within its own floating and eerie orbit no matter what was done.

Inevitably, Jesse James polarized critical opinion across the world: Many regard it as a moody Western masterpiece that echoed the mystical intensities of a cinema master like the aforementioned Malick. Others describe the film as a plodding and overlong chore filled with unpleasant men scrabbling their way through the last gasps of maverick American life in the late 19th century.

Box office was middling as the film faded away from cinemas, despite two unquestionably great performances that lay at its center: As Jesse James, Brad Pitt revived his career as an actor in a single stroke, marrying the almost narcissistic grace of his body movements to a psychopathic chill and sad intuition that his way of life is coming to an end; as Robert Ford, Casey Affleck is his milk-faced admirer and eventual killer, a glassy eyed and thin-voiced Judas geared for betrayal from the very first slight he receives.

Trying to engage Dominik on why he returned to a seemingly exhausted and unpopular genre like the Western produces a mix of irritation and boredom from the director. He couldn’t care less about industry antipathies to the genre (“I know film students don’t like to do them”) found no opposition to the project in its initial stages (“If you’re doing a Western with Brad Pitt involved everyone is interested”) and doesn’t really want to discuss “the history of the Western” as film subject at all.

“I’ve been attracted not so much to Western movies as Western literature,” Dominik emphasizes, a fact borne out by scripts he is currently trying to develop for Cormac McCarthy’s hallucinogenic Western novel Cities of the Plain and Jim Thompson’s malevolently comic sheriff’s tale, Pop.1280.

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