The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford February 17, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
The American Old West has been mythologized to excess, especially the less-than-noble bandit criminals. Jesse James, then, would be the prince of these men, too often wrongly characterized as Robin Hood-like figures who were merely setting things “right.” James was popular enough to inspire numerous film versions in Hollywood’s classic period, including stabs by three of my very favorite directors - Fritz Lang, Samuel Fuller, and Nicholas Ray. Of those trio of films, Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James most closely resembles Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford because it lets Ford share some of the action. Bob Ford would, no doubt, be delighted with the attention.
Growing up, I can vaguely remember rumors that Jesse James had at one time resided in my county. Though I’ve never seen any documentation of this, I suppose it’s not completely out of the question. James was almost nomadic in his paranoid compulsion to relocate for fear of being caught or, presumably, killed. Though he was largely lionized and celebrated as an enemy only to the wealthy, James was also a murderous thief who’d shoot anyone he had to. For decades, Hollywood has mostly preferred to focus on the Jesse James myth instead of reality, despite such misleading film titles like Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James. Unfortunately, the story there is whitewashed and it’s one of Ray’s most disappointing films from his highly fertile output of the 1950s. Robert Wagner is no one’s ideal of a notorious outlaw. There are flashes of a good movie in there, but it’s ridiculous to try and squeeze anything of substance about James into 92 minutes.
The situation is similar with the earlier James films. Lang’s effort, The Return of Frank James, actually focused on Frank James following Jesse’s death and was a sequel to Henry King’s Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power. In many ways, they’re worse than the Ray film because they’re incredibly safe Hollywood fantasy. Slightly better is Fuller’s film, which places James as secondary to his killer Robert Ford and provides an interesting look at how shooting James affected Ford. Still, it was Fuller’s first directing job, and it’s mostly just a yarn, though not without merit. Since then, a few more Jesse James movies have popped up, though few with much of a profile. Walter Hill’s The Long Riders comes to mind, as does The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, directed by Philip Kaufman. The former had the neat trick of pairing real-life brothers with roles as outlaw siblings, casting Christopher and Nicholas Guest as the Fords, while the latter didn’t bother with Bob Ford at all.
Decades after Fuller and his less lofty ambitions scratched the surface, it took Dominik’s 2007 film to capture the essence of the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford. Here we have Brad Pitt giving a raw, but slightly reined-in performance as James, his fellow Missouri native and someone of equally ridiculous renown. Pitt has certainly been willing to peel away his movie star qualities before, in everything from 12 Monkeys and Snatch to Fight Club and Babel, but it’s exceedingly rare to see him as such a serpent like figure, and a boisterously arrogant one at that. His James is a coldblooded maniac who’s seemingly on the brink of losing his mind as a result of pent-up paranoia and godlike perception. Dime store books have described every detail of Jesse James, from eye color to height, and helped create a legion of acolytes.
One of those admirers was Robert Ford, given a characterization for the ages by Casey Affleck here. Affleck has quietly become one of the most interesting actors of his generation, an observation confirmed by his equally good lead role in brother Ben’s Gone Baby Gone, also from last year. His casting here is absolutely perfect. Having Pitt the movie star as the larger than life James and putting an on-the-brink Affleck as a sycophant who lays in wait was a brilliant stroke of serendipity. Affleck makes some bold choices as Ford, turning him into a creepily off-center idolater who somehow ends up both sad and sympathetic. The real beauty in the performance is revealed over the film’s 160-minute running time, as Ford evolves from a bright-eyed wannabe, into an angry punk, and, finally, as a disappointed antihero who’s fulfilled his destiny of the title without attaining the glamour he wrongheadedly thought would go with it.
In the film’s last twenty minutes, it shows its stripes as being more concerned with the effects, before and after the fact, of celebrity worship than anything normally associated with traditional westerns. This isn’t a movie interested in gunfights and galloping horses. There are roots spread out across John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but the late 19th century time period is less a convenient excuse for comparison than an opportunity to portray the West as an early instance of false heroes built from ink on paper. We’ll defend our idols through every criticism and digest and collect each little piece of information we can find, but once the tides have turned, things can get extremely ugly.
There’s plenty more to glean from Dominik’s film, though. It certainly looks beautiful, thanks to Roger Deakins’ usually brilliant cinematography (earning an Oscar nomination this year where’s he up against, among others, himself, for No Country for Old Men). Even if it doesn’t really feel like Days of Heaven, many of the scenes resemble Terrence Malick’s film on an aesthetic level. The pacing is incredibly languid, but dreamy enough to never drag and actually lends itself to an even longer version. This is absolutely not a film filled with overly long takes of nature. I think it’s fair to call it a little bloated, but not in the sense of too many artfully crafted scenes. The story unfolds deliberately, maybe even to a fault, with a narrative more in the style of a novel’s chapters than simply allowing events to occur naturally, one after the other. A voiceover narration further adds to this approach, and helps maintain the film’s desired elegiac tone.
It does feel a little like you’re turning the pages of a book while watching the film, but I wouldn’t say this particularly bothered me. The performances, the camera work, and the well-explored underlying themes of celebrity, paranoia, and betrayal are all reason enough to set aside any lingering concerns. I don’t particularly think this fits the normal definition of a Western, though enthusiasts of that genre will hopefully still take something of value away from the film. It’s more of a Mafia drama with horses, and Brad Pitt is the obvious don. He’s a man with all the power, surrounded by underlings he can’t trust, and willing to establish his dominance through violent force against those who betray him. The only thing I have difficulty buying is how the title act is presented. That aside, the remainder of the film is as strong or stronger as anything that comes before, and, using some of the best parts found in Fuller’s version, Dominik establishes a nearly perfect epilogue. The mythology of Jesse James’ death turns into the proverbial “be careful what you wish for,” and Robert Ford has to endure the fate he’s created for himself, assassinating Jesse James 800 times before facing the cruel destiny of history repeating itself.