Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made many movie critics' top ten list, and with good reason. The film - adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Hanson and the first major directorial debut by Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik - is no small feat. It is a sweeping epic with a pitch perfect score by Nick Cave, magnificent cinematography, and brilliant performances by Brad Pitt as James and Cassey Affleck as the star struck, and ultimately spurned, Robert Ford.

Those who praised the movie almost seem to echo in unison that it is the best western since "Unforgiven", which, it would seem to me, is setting the bar rather low. What makes the movie so appealing is the absence of a Clint Eastwood style Byron-esque hero in love with his own damnation, running almost recklessly towards it, a thematic hero Eastwood has been unable to break with since "Unforgiven" swept the Oscars in 1993.

Conservative critics, most notably James Bowman, while praising the film's score and cinematography, have accused it of being a post modernist tale of celebrity worship, and oddly enough, like the film's defenders, claim that Brad Pitt's portrayal of James falls exactly into the category of Eastwood's self absorbed hero. While there is no disputing the fact that Affleck's Ford is a sycophantic admirer of James, I doubt the film is in any way meant to be allegorical, and if it is, it is more by accident than design.

The film, indisputably, has many flaws, the most glaring being it's 160 minute running time, whittled down from it's original span of well over 3 hours. When a film, especially a Western, asks it's audience to sit for over 2 hours, one would expect a little more action than the movie provides. The only heist scene the audience is let in on is the James' gang's last known train robbery that serves as the opening sequence of the film. Also, there is precious little seen of many of the supporting cast, most notably Sam Shepard (Frank James) and Marie-Louise Parker (Zee James).

The movie centers around Jesse's knowledge that he is a man living on borrowed time, who takes into his confidence the star struck Robert Ford, who James' misjudges as being too simple minded or spell bound by James' cult of persona that he feels no threat from him until it is much too late.
Jesse's brutality is slow and methodical, and for the most part, unseen, as he systematically hunts down the remaining members of the Blue Cut Train Robbery gang. What is brilliant about Pitt's performance is that his obsessive paranoia is always well masked behind a facade of cordiality and stoicism. His piercing blue eyes miss nothing, as he casually makes house calls to those who have betrayed him - not to discover where the chess pieces are falling, but to confirm what he already knows by peppering casual conversation with seemingly benign questions that telegraph in no uncertain terms that he is no one's fool.

Pitt allows us brief opportunities to witness the cracks in his veneer, the first being his maniacal beating of one the clan members young nephews to give up the location of his uncle, having to be forcibly subdued before he risks killing the boy in a frenzy. After leaving the barn, Pitt is seen sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around the neck of his horse. It one of many great moments of this imperfect film - Is his grief is the product of self-pity and the ever looming threat of the hangman's noose, or is he weeping in disgust at his unchecked brutality upon a child similar in age to his own children?

The ambiguity of his inner torment and the cause of it are left for the audience to ponder. The only insight into the true motives - or competing motives - that are the centrifuge of his actions are given in scattered piecemeal throughout the film. In one scene, as the gang awaits the coming of the train in Blue Cut, Missouri, one of the bandits is heard singing an anti-union hymn about "that bastard Lincoln". Earlier on, the robbers engage in a conversation about the virility of General Lee. There is no doubt James has become a folk hero to buoy the spirits of the South after the humiliation of reconstruction, as is well evidenced by the penny books Ford lovingly collects in a box underneath his bed extolling and exaggerating the exploits of the James gang as redeemers of the South's honor. Is James the avenger of the South, or a common thug with a serpentine charm? The movie seems uninterested in answering this question, though it has close to 3 hours to do so.

In the end, Ford is mocked and becomes little more than an errand boy to James, fueling his rage and ultimately leading him to accept the $10,000 bounty for shooting James dead at the request of Missouri's Governor Crittenden.

James' demise is a classic reworking of the tale that has been retold countless times in movies, books, and oral tradition. It involves being shot in the back while fixing a picture - expect in this case, James is seen dusting the picture on a stool, after leaving his sidearms on the love seat. I had wrestled for some time with whether the scene is meant to show James as being careless, or whether it is an explicit act of resignation. The answer is no doubt the latter; James is clearly aware that Ford is simply biding his time, waiting for the opportune time to dispatch of him.

The fact that James removes his guns and turns his back to Ford is his way of removing any glory Ford hopes to gain for his treachery. As Jesse watches Ford aim the revolver at him through the reflection of the picture, Ford also sees the condescension on James' face reflected back, as if to say "There will be no parades for a coward who shoots an unarmed man in the back".

In the end, there are indeed no parades for Robert Ford. Though the act has brought him wealth, he is ridiculed, beaten, spit on, and ultimately assassinated himself.

If you're a fan of Tombstone or The Quick and The Dead, this movie will probably bore you to tears. If you fancy yourself a cinematic intellectual of sorts, you won't find the character's rambling on in any post modern soliloquies either. This movie is a visual treat, and as mentioned earlier Nick Cave's subdued but haunting score is complimented beautifully by the pitch perfect narration of Hugh Ross. Pitt and Affleck are spellbinding, and the supporting cast are flawless.

This movie is far from a masterpiece, but when set besides the endless junk being spit out of Hollywood, it is very watchable, and a film I strongly recommend to my readers.


The movie was co-produced by Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator. In a salute to his fans, there is a scene in the early moments of the film where Jesse's hand is seen gliding over the top of a field of wheat - an almost identical shot that Ridley used at the beginning of Gladiator.




Ace said...

Couldn't disagree more. Absolutely hated this movie. Boring and lifeless. Who knew Jesse James was a raging OxyContin addict?

Vallerie said...

Good post.