The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

| October 29, 2007

Andrew Dominik’s long-delayed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a movie about people looking for something that is not there, both literally and figuratively. The James Brothers are done. Jesse just doesn’t know it yet and neither do the Ford Brothers, one of whom has over-prepared his life away to meet Jesse James. So much has he studied the man that he’s far more equipped to be him than be with him, as Jesse remarks from his tub as Ford watches in the doorway. The most chilling scene in a movie with plenty is when, in front of Jesse himself and the Ford family, Robert rattles off a grocery list of similarities between the two men as one would conspire together the destinies of Lincoln and JFK. The monologue, prompted by fraternal teasing, is met by laughter and the boy’s dreams dangerously collapse to no sympathy, but labels of “testiness” and “crankiness”. Jesse has survived his share of hero worship and, were he not visibly near the end of his capacities, certainly would not again, and claims to have killed men for less.
But as portrayed by Brad Pitt, in a performance of distant spookiness, Jesse has little left by the legend his rebukes, a legend that finds him allies by way of the Ford brothers, youngest Bob (Casey Affleck), oldest Charley (Sam Rockwell), cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Ed Miller (Garrett Dillahunt), and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), who are privy to the last train robbery by the James Brothers gang. Older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), has had enough, and in the moments before the robbery which plays like the most striking piece of film that Vittorio Storaro never shot, he encounters Robert Ford who posits himself forward as a sidekick. “Boy, you give me the willies,” Frank counters Bob’s awkward pledges of loyalty and leads the young boy off, pistol aimed dead and square to head. The robbery is a success and soon after, the gang parts ways, the Ford brothers gone home, and the others turned conspirators for the bounty on Jesse’s head, mistakenly revealed by Ed, and Dick and Wood have a falling out that leads to Bob Ford accidentally proving his mettle with a pistol. He will become accustomed to the feel and will fire it twice within the course of the film, both to grisly effect.
By the time Bob gets the chance to ride with his legend, both he and Jesse are too far from the men they once were to make a go of it for very long. Older brother Charley has been riding with Jesse for some time and they’ve yet to rob a single bank, Jesse too withdrawn into astral paranoia to do much of anything, and then, as conveyed by Andrew Dominik with a strong register of optionless destiny, Robert Ford and his brother Charley find themselves a legacy they are incapable of maintaining. There are times during Dominik’s lofty epic where he draws fewer comparisons to revisionist Westerns like Unforgiven or The Proposition as American tragedies like A Place in the Sun, especially given the film’s omniscient voice-over narration that is as strong here as misguided in Little Children, and–along with Nick Cave’s beautiful score–helps to propel a superficially unwieldy narrative that has been through post-production hell. The only misstep is a reflective lens effect that serves to mar Roger Deakins otherwise mesmerizing cinematography.
Let it be known that the wait was well worth the year of patience it took to find the right mold for Dominik’s storytelling, and there will be few films this decade to make such sublimely poetic use of studio strong-arm. Revisiting less the Western itself than manner in which fables are passed down through generations, sitting through the shucking and jiving of the film’s slow build is a curious experience but one would be wrong to label it as rambling. It knows precisely what it wants to be at every given moment and when Jesse takes a tumble off his chair, the film sidesteps into as incredible an epilogue as I’ve ever seen that doesn’t so much dwarf all before as mere prelude but rather opens your eyes–as it does with Bob and Charley–for the first time, hinging the depression that comes with unruly legacy on the viewer as well.
There will be few performances this year as accomplished and layered as Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford. Dominik draws all in his company onto the same wavelength (Pitt, Rockwell, and Schneider) but it’s Affleck who sets the rhythm, a little boy with a man-crush that as the film goes along goes through adolescence, as he in truth does as well. His devotion to Jesse James goes through myriad stages: idealized worship from afar, tense palpability, rejection, and then dangerous reunion. There’s a world of bees churning a storm of confusion and hurt in the boy’s head that is misunderstood and derided for far too long during his childhood; how fitting, it may be, that Dominik parallels the theater with purgatory, and that in the performance he reenacts the last day in the life of Jesse James again and again to infamous celebrity, he turns out to be quite the accomplished actor, hungry for the dependency of long-anticipated applause.

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