Film Review #148: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Director: Andrew Dominick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard
Theirs is one of our favorite stories of sidekicks-gone-wrong. Not quite 20 in September 1881, Bob Ford met his childhood idol near Blue Cut, Missouri, just as Jesse James and his older brother Frank were embarking on what they intended would be their last train robbery before retirement. At 34, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) had robbed over 25 trains since 1867. Other than Frank (Sam Shepard), who soon left him, and some feckless younger cousins, the rest of his gang was dead or locked up. Bob (Casey Affleck) hoped for a chance to show his “daring and grit,” and insinuated himself with a little set speech not unlike a novice job-seeker today. Initially rebuffed in no uncertain turns – Frank tells him “Scat!” and pulls a gun, and Jesse’s crew stands up en masse from a campfire when Bob tries to casually sit down with them – Bob had a way of glancing off into space so as to miss rejection, and he persisted.
Eight months later almost to the day, Bob shot Jesse James in the back of the head with a six-shooter Jesse had just given him while the domestically fastidious robber stood on a parlor chair after breakfast to dust a framed print of a horse. Because his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) had also raised a gun, Bob shot Jesse quickly, so as not to miss out on the reward and fame. He also feared Jesse’s revenge for other disloyalties just come to light and anyway his love had been souring for some time. Later, the Fords toured the US, re-enacting their betrayal on stage more than 800 times, until Charley committed suicide and Bob – running a tent saloon ten years later outside the silver mines in Creede, Colorado – was himself shot to death by another fame-seeker.
New Zealand native Andrew Dominick wrote and directed this film from Rob Hansen’s novel. Previously Dominick worked in Australia, seven years ago making Chopper, based on another violent, charismatic thug’s exploits and celebrity. (Aussie ex-convict Mark Read’s inventory of murders actually exceeds that of Jesse James, and he’s lived so far to enjoy lucrative profits as a pulp fiction writer and rap artist.) Now this film, released last October to disappointing box office, closely follows historical events but adds a rich, layered imagining of Jesse’s symphonic mood swings and Bob Ford’s evolving infatuation and resentment. This year’s Oscar nominations have their glaring omissions – Brad Pitt’s excellent Jesse among them – but Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford earns his spot for Best Supporting Actor and then some.
The great Roger Deakins is cinematographer. He’s Oscar-nominated this year a second time for the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, but his work here is clearly superior and more daring. I watched this film with an art historian whose exclamations of pure visual pleasure punctuated the film’s lengthy running time. In Deakins’ use of extreme shadow and focused light for what are essentially intensely still portrait studies, she saw Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt. Unlike the Western movie’s classic landscape with those sweeping Texas vistas – see No Country – Deakins here offers two sharply contrasting world visions. Often Jesse appears against the open sky, wading in wind-rippled prairie grass. The prospects of others are pinched, muddy and bleak. Door frames truncate their vistas, intervening upright posts and roofs chop their frame into halves and thirds, short-sightedness blurs their peripheries, chill emptiness washes out their colors to near abstraction. Whatever Jesse may evoke, for most folks frontier life was monotonous, harsh, and flat. It’s no stretch to imagine Bob Ford – all his dreams hidden scraps inside a shoe-box that his brothers tease him for – in one of today’s bombed-out urban cores.
Over 20 films – the first made in 1921, starring Jesse James, Jr. – have recounted these events. Long at 160 minutes, difficult, rewarding, with far less “action” that we expect from Westerns, this film requires some commitment to watch. Both the dialogue and voice-over narrative (actor Hugh Ross delivers a meditative, often sparely lyrical reading that’s also at odds with an action film’s expectations) make you want to jot down line after line. Very early, for example, we hear of Jesse, “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed.”
Quickly, Dominick's version of the Blue Cut train robbery lives up to this kind of heightening. In real life, Jesse barely escaped the Blue Cut fiasco in one piece. On-screen, with the train’s light shivering through the forest, the rolling fog conjuring sudden silhouettes, Jesse’s almond-shaped eyes glittering out of the night, brutes stalking up the aisle among passengers – well, right here’s our home-grown hi-jacker, fearsome, deeply sadistic, both alluring and repellant.
Civil War Missouri was a border state ripped apart by guerilla fighting. Jesse’s own family was tortured and Frank James rode with the Quantrill’s Raiders irregular militia. Jesse was probably an actual terrorist too – in 2003 biographer T.J. Stiles argued persuasively for this – long recalcitrant after a war whose breadth of death and brutality we are only lately discovering. Scholar Drew Gilpin Faust’s new and revelatory This Republic of Suffering just got a two-page spread in Newsweek. Dominick’s film includes a taken-for-granted overlap of that Civil War, its aftermath and the settling of the West that has bracingly reappeared in recent Westerns – Seraphim Falls and David Milch’s Deadwood, for example. For many years classic Hollywood Westerns, as I have written elsewhere, glanced away from this continuum - not unlike Bob Ford, really - as if settling the West were an opportunity to forget, both in its new beginning and its on-screen portrayal.
Those impatient with the time national reconciliation is taking elsewhere need only look within.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was released last Tuesday on DVD. This review appeared in the 2/7/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.