Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Unseen #22: The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.

Why’d I Buy It?: Tarantino Rave ™.

Why Haven’t I Watched It Yet?: Lazyness, apathy, the fact that I really need to do better getting these on some kind of consistent schedule.

How Was It?:

What is it about Jesse James that makes filmmakers want to cover him? More then any of the other western legends, James seems to beg major filmmakers for interpretation. Sam Fuller, Walter Hill, and most recently Andrew Dominick in his poetic film/litmus test The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (We’ll just ignore American Outlaws for the time being yes?) . But the one I’ve always been real curious about is Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. A vicious revisionist western, with Robert Duval as James. I’ve been meaning to see it since I heard Tarantino rave about it ™. And last night I finally got around to it.

Now say what you will about Phillip Kaufman, that he’s “overrated”, that he “hasn’t made anything that’s actually worth watching in ten years” (And that’s being generous givng the flawed but ultimately fascinating Quills the benefit of the doubt. Take that away and he hasn’t made anything worth seeing in Twenty Two years). But when Kaufman is on I’ll line him up against just about any filmmaker out there. The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff, these are great movies. Not good. Great.

Kaufman's main problem is he’s a great director and a great writer but rarely both of those things at the same time. The Great Northsfield Minnesota Raid is a bit like watching a William Goldman script adapted by Sam Peckinpah. Juxtaposing moments of eerie power like the confused tone poem montage that drifts through the dying Cole Younger’s mind as he bleeds to death, with an opening so cheerfully romantic it would look out of place in a John Ford movie. Including one of the most out of place cheesy voice overs I’ve ever heard in a film. If Kaufman was going for irony in these sequences he failed to reach it. As is it tries to have its cake and eat it to, serving as both classical and deconstruction. I can’t help but feel that the movie would have been better served if it had just stuck to one tone or the other.

Because don’t get me wrong when The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is on, its firing on all cylinders. It's a ripe script filled with killer moments and lines just waiting for Tarantino to appropriate The movie is less of a Jesse James movie per se, and more of a movie that happens to feature Jesse James in it. The film actually focuses on Cole Younger, played by a near unrecognizable Cliff Robertson. After Younger is wounded he tries to head off James before he can do something fool hardy like burn Minnesota to the ground and screw up their potential amnesty. After the amnesty gets shut down by the bribing Pinkerton’s Younger ends up joining in on the raid, and things go markedly downhill from there.

Duval steals every second he’s on screen. His manic Jesse James is half mystic half psychotic dominates every scene he’s in. Equal parts sentimental and ruthless Duval gives him the magnetic air of someone who might literally do anything at any moment.

The best thing about The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, is the fact that Kaufman is really unafraid to stretch out and let his film and world breath. There is a Great absurdist baseball scene in the middle of the film. Kaufman gives the scene time to build play annd develop a life of its own. In a way this film feels like, what a successful version of Heaven’s Gate (which I’m sorry but no amount of revisionist history will get me to see that as anything but a disaster) might have been like.

No comments: