The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Warner Bros. Pictures
Andrew Dominik/United States 2007

If it weren’t for the fact that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford boasts such well-known, contemporary actors, one might be tempted to think that the film was accidentally locked in a studio vault sometime during the 1970s and only recently rediscovered. There is something splendidly musty and blessedly anachronistic about it. It is a throwback to another time when films were allowed to be unhurried, when audiences trusted multiple storylines to converge organically, and time and place was evoked with consummate craft. The Assassination of Jesse James moves with all the deliberate pacing of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and shimmers with the magisterial beauty of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. The old is new again, and it has never looked so breathtaking.

The Assassination of Jesse James makes use of extensive voice-over narration which, like last year’s Little Children, not only describes events but also comments on the characters and their actions. Sounding as if it were transcribed directly from a book written during James’ lifetime, it is antiquated but steeped in language as rich and lyrical as poetry. When the narrator speaks, the camera assumes a diffused eye – images become soft and unfocused, as if the screen is a time machine casting itself back to events obscured through time and partially lost in the fog of memory.

The epic saga (with a running time of 160 minutes) is set in 1881. Civilization, even with its rough edges, has come to the frontier. This isn’t a western with gunslingers and saloons, but Victorian houses and bowler hats. The time of the brigand is nearly at an end. As Jesse James (Brad Pitt) plans what is to be his last great robbery, he finds himself under siege from both the law and members of his own gang who are tempted to turn him in themselves for a reward so large it dwarfs anything they might haul from a bank vault. James becomes increasingly paranoid, prone to fits of shocking inhumanity followed by melancholy bouts of guilt-sodden remorse.

Despite these moments, James gets little character development. Far from being an oversight, James is always removed, at a distance, larger than life, one-dimensional, an enigma – but then most legends are. To delve too far into James’ humanness rather than his persona, to examine the man at a cellular level, would be to deny The Assassination of Jesse James its primary purpose. This is not a film about Jesse James, nor is Pitt its lead actor. This is a film about Robert Ford and Casey Affleck is its star.

Ford is a quivering, sycophantic leech grasping for greatness. As a child, he collected everything he could about the exploits of the legendary outlaw Jesse James. An industry of dime store novels and sensationalistic tabloid stories turned the criminal into a folk hero. Now 19, (James is 34) Ford finds himself in James’ gang of ragtag ruffians. He does everything he can to ingratiate himself to James but only comes off as an obsequious, flattering toad. “I can’t figure it out,” James tells him at one point, “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Truly, there is a thin line between adoration and resentment. Ford is so desperate to be the thing he worships that supplanting his idol may be the only way he can find peace. As the title declares, it is no spoiler to say that, in the end, Ford will betray his hero and fire a bullet into the back of his skull.

Were Ford’s actions self-defense or cowardice? Or was James, resigned to the fact that this days were numbered, committing suicide by another’s hand?

Despite the fact that Pitt recently won the “Best Actor” prize at the Venice Film Festival for his role as James, it is Affleck who stuns. His sniveling interiority and mumbled cadence is utterly faultless. The supporting cast is no less impressive and on screen so often they deserve recognition. While Sam Shepherd, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, and Paul Schneider stand out as members of Jesse’s gang and Mary-Louise Parker and Alison Elliot shine in too brief roles as the menfolk’s longsuffering women, it is Sam Rockwell who proves once again, as with the chilling Joshua, that he is as adept at drama as comedy. Politico James Carville turns in a mesmeric performance as the governor of Missouri.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel by the same name, is a scholarly dissection, using the camera as a scalpel to peel back the layers of time and lore in an attempt to get at the truth – or at least the filmmakers’ version of that truth. More than just a study of jealousy, obsession and revenge, the film is a major revisionist work, deconstructing American folklore to reveal that obsession with celebrity and the uncomfortable tether between crime and fame is certainly nothing new to the 21st century.

The film is awash in the sort of macro attention to detail – historical, mythological, behavioral and psychological – that few piece of art, let alone motion pictures, ever come close to achieving. And it does it with impeccable, consummate ease. Shockingly, The Assassination of Jesse James is only the second film to come from Aussie director Andrew Dominik. Together with renowned director of photography Roger Deakins, he has created a film of ravishing elegance and heartrending beauty. The film’s glowing, painterly cinematography and barren wintry landscapes may easily be the most incandescent things to grace theater screens this year.

© 2007 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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