The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a title that neatly sums up the basic action of the film it’s attached to, but it only tells part of the story. Why did Ford do it and who is really the hero and who is the coward? Those are a few of the enduring question of this new western, yet they remain partly a mystery. Instead of providing straight answers, Jesse James offers a contemplation, a meditation on the nature of fame, of heroes and of hero worship. It also looks at the perhaps not-uniquely-American tendency to idolize a scoundrel. It is a Western more lyrical than action packed. It has more in common with McCabe and Mrs. Miller than The Magnificent Seven. If Terrence Malick made a western, it might be something like Jesse James, though instead of musing on a man’s place in nature, this film considers a man’s place in history.
The story of Jesse James has been told many times in many forms. This telling by writer/directord Andrew Dominik (Chopper) is based on the novel by Ron Hansen. It begins in 1881 when the outlaw (Brad Pitt) is 34 years old. He’s married, has two children, and is already somewhat of a legend in his own time, the subject of songs and popular novels. To some, especially those whose sympathies lie with the Confederate South, he’s a hero, a kind of Robin Hood. To others he’s a murderer and a thief.
The failed Northfield Minnesota Raid is long past and brothers Frank and Jesse James are all that remain of the infamous James-Younger gang. The new members are mostly “rubes and petty thieves” including brothers Charley and Robert Ford (Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck). 19-year-old Robert is the youngest member of the gang. He’s desperate to prove himself, but he’s awkward and green and frequently the butt of jokes. As a boy he worshipped Jesse James and he still has a collection of dime novels and mementos featuring the outlaw. At one point he reverently lays them out on his bed like religious artifacts. “It’s all a lie you know,” Jesse says of the stories about him, but he also seems to enjoy the adulation and he’s happy to let Robert perform menial tasks for him.
Frank (Sam Shepard) doesn’t like the new gang and he’s tired of the outlaw life. With Jesse seeming to become increasingly unstable and dangerous, Frank is the glue that holds the gang together and when he retires, the gang begins to implode. Jesse has grown paranoid and trusts no one. Petty squabbles and rivalries between the gang are magnified by suspicion. Lies are told and secrets are kept and the tension escalates.
Against this ominous backdrop, the pending assassination hangs over the story like a pall. You know it’s going to happen, but not when or why. It is the question of how Robert goes from reverence to murder that drives the story along and when the killing finally happens, it’s no less shocking for being expected.
When it’s over, Ford’s motives remain ambiguous. There are several reasons offered why he killed Jesse James, some of them casting him in a better light than others, but in the end his true motives might have no meaning. Ultimately, history decides who’s a hero and who’s a coward. “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James,” Ford says ominously at one point. It’s a prophesy he fulfills, but he’s unable to control the role he plays in his own history. He’s ensured that he’ll be remembered, but not how. In this case, history has judged and Ford is forever memorialized as a coward.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow, beautiful, beguiling film alive with a love of language and a Coenesque fascination with now outmoded turns of speech. The spare and beautiful score from Nick Cave elegantly plays off the gorgeous photography of the great Roger Deakins (surely between this, In the Valley of Elah and No Country For Old Men Deakins has to win an Oscar this year, doesn’t he?). The matter of fact, literary sounding voiceover that dominates parts of the film took me a while to warm up to and seemed pretentious at first, but it won me over. The Robert McKee hack-screenwriting-formulists will insist that voiceover is lazy filmmaking, telling rather than showing, but I think it’s especially effective when translating literature to film as is the case here. Except for the dialogue, it’s the only way to acknowledge the author’s voice.
The only small misstep the film makes is the distracting casting of political-consultant-cum-talking-head James Carville as the Governor of Missouri. He’s not a bad actor, but you never forget who you’re looking at and his scenes pull you out of the movie. It’s a small issue however and the rest of the cast is superb. It’s their acting rather than the plot that is really the motor keeping the film moving. Combined, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner and Garret Dillahunt threaten to steal the movie as gang members Charley Ford, Dick Liddil, Wood Hite and Ed Miller. Sam Shepard is scarce but good as Frank James.
As good as the supporting cast is, the center of the film belongs to Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the two title characters. Pitt is the superstar here, but it’s important not to underestimate how good he really is. He veers nicely between good and evil, dangerous and charming without overdoing it. Casey Affleck is an even bigger surprise. At turns slimy, pathetic, and sad, at others innocent and almost noble, Affleck drives the desire, the fear, the desperation and the ambiguity of his character home. I think it’s safe to say Casey has earned the acting credibility that has always seemed to elude his older brother Ben. This movie really belongs to him.
It remains to be seen whether audiences will turn out for a complex, thoughtful western that doesn’t feature a lot of action or a clear cut resolution. It’s a long movie and slow, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s a sipping beverage meant to be savored and enjoyed, like scotch, lighting up your tongue and warming your throat and belly as it goes down. It doesn’t offer the quick and easy pleasures of more forgettable product, but it nourishes. There are a lot of movies yet to be released this year, but The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the good ones and you should see it in a theater on the biggest screen you can find.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. USA 2007. Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik. Based upon the novel by Ron Hansen. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Music Score composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker and Garret Dillahunt. 2 hours 40 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references. 4.5 stars (out of 5)