The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell
he Americans certainly are great hero worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal element. -- Oscar Wilde, writing from St. Joseph, Mo., of the looting of the late Jesse James’ home, April 1882
Taking up where the contemporary whitewashes of Jesse James as Robin Hood (or avenger of the Confederacy) left off, filmmakers from Fritz Lang to Walter Hill have had a go at the myth of the outlaw for nearly 90 years, now embodied by Brad Pitt in a long-delayed, deliberate, 160-minute chamber piece, based on an accomplished but minor 1983 novel by Ron Hansen. Here James’ gang member and killer Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) shares billing and screen time with his idol, whose histories and tarted-up pulp exploits he’s kept in a box under his bed since boyhood. But the inflated austerity of the treatment isn’t suited to what seems more like a stalker story that has nothing illuminating to say about America, mortality or notoriety.
Mass audiences had best not expect much ripsnorting action: There’s one train robbery, the James gang’s last, in the opening reel, with their leader iconically backlit in a shroud of locomotive steam. The strong-arming of the passengers and security men is appropriately shabby and deglamorized, as Jesse pistol-whips a railroad cashier into near-death. But the film soon becomes a chronicle of what robbers do between gigs, or in semi-retirement. Affleck, as the fanboy who initially expresses his awe profusely to his amused hero, is a physically perfect choice for the adoring but querulous Ford, with his pasty juvenile face and forced smile. The performance is credible, but the character is crucially found wanting in his opaque motives. If not a born killer, is he queer for Jesse, or just a spurned acolyte? After one too many mockeries of his gushing devotion, Bob’s collaboration with the authorities for the celebrity bandit’s capture is clearly cast as a moral error, most blatantly by the casting of political goon James Carville as the governor of Missouri (Karl Rove presumably was not yet available).
The movie’s attitude toward James’ demise is vague without being ambivalent. He’s a homespun mystic apt to muse, while shooting ice to gaze at fish in a frozen river, that a man “would sooner spoon up his own puke” than choose to continue living once he’s glimpsed the Other Side. Beside these reveries, raconteurial bursts at the hearth, and playfulness with his children, his accompanying darkness is based on little more than the ability to sit in a room with friends, cousins or traitors and make them hellaciously worried that he’s come to blow their faces off, just by ominously drawing on a cigar or telling fateful tales of old enemies. When Pitt gets a chance to be more actively scary—as in a knife-to-the-throat warning to Bob shortly before the fatal betrayal—he crowns it by recapitulating Tyler Durden’s horselaugh from Fight Club. (Apparently it’s just Brad Pitt’s horselaugh.) The actor’s beauty has always made his acting underappreciated, but he’s just not preternaturally badass. Swathed in a bulky beaver coat, Jesse is a terrifying Death Angel to the past confederates he visits and guns down when he senses betrayal—yet when he furiously pummels a young boy for information, he’s sentimentally seen weeping over it a minute later.
Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik’s first feature Chopper was a bloody comedy that punched Eric Bana’s Hollywood ticket, a crude but not remotely reverent story of a more contemporary real-life, media-savvy killer. Who decided that he had the necessary vision and stylistic élan to pull off a meditative psychological epic, based on one movie with an utterly different tone and scope? Co-producer Pitt? Dominik has made a stately simulacrum of a “deep” western with none of the resonance of a Ford, Boetticher, or Peckinpah, and occasionally can’t even get the surface right. The veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins works with a prettily bleak palette of browns, lantern-lit amber, and wintry exterior blues, but there’s recurring use of an optical effect that blurs everything but the center of the screen that gets old fast, as do interstitial shots of time-lapse clouds speeding by. And if anything, the adaptation is too faithful to the Hansen novel, large chunks of which are heard in wistful narration, even if what’s on the screen doesn’t justify the mournful tone.
The last 40 minutes of the film work best because after all the watching and waiting its fugitives do, they’re the most eventful, as the Fords conclude only killing their friend will save them from execution by his hand. Jesse’s death seems to occur as a willful, weary surrender of his life to Bob Ford’s mortal fear and miscalculated ambition, a Jesus-Judas transaction of bandit and punk. When the brothers embark on a theatrical tour the next year, recreating the shooting onstage, the shift of milieu is colorful, but their comeuppance via guilt and derision just doesn’t pack a punch. As Bob drunkenly lashes out in a Bowery bar upon hearing a balladeer (Nick Cave, who co-wrote the music-boxlike score with Warren Ellis) sing of him as a “dirty little coward,” it lacks the raw power of a similar scene in Sam Fuller’s more conventional B movie I Shot Jesse James. Ford’s post-acquittal life is truncated by Dominik (or Warner Brothers) because it can only appear as the downfall of a ridiculous man once Jesse/Pitt has been dispatched.
Nearly all the actors are good though, particularly Paul Schneider as the James gang’s resident seducer, Dick Liddil (“I’m what they call an em-o-ra-tu,” he coos to one conquest in an outhouse) and Sam Rockwell’s antic, scatterbrained Charley Ford, his brother’s ally in the James crew. Charley “couldn’t pound nails into snow,” as Jesse puts it, but in the movie’s last act his abject terror and subsequent haunting by the infamous deed register with a taste of genuine tragedy. In a timeworn exception, of course, Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife hardly gets to do anything but announce when dinner’s ready and look worriedly at twitchy Bob.
The Assasssination of Jesse James’ hollowness is in the insignificance of its two violent sociopaths, one with popular surface “charm,” the other lacking it. Under its sober grandiosity, Jesse can’t even wrangle with Clint Eastwood’s overrated Unforgiven or Lawrence Kasdan’s underseen Wyatt Earp among would-be revisionist westerns, let alone the most dense examples of the genre in the last 20 years, TV’s “Lonesome Dove” and “Deadwood.” That latter pair of frontier sagas planted virtue and villainy, in all their gradations and hybrids, in the broad context of rural community and the aspirations to a civil society. This watchable but indulgent curio blings up the petty vanities and ambitions of the criminal class, and lays greater themes in their graves.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is currently playing in limited release.
By: Bill Weber
Published on: 2007-10-11