The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Jesse James as Pop Icon
By Cole Smithey
New Zealand director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper") tells the story of Jesse James’s last days in a patient and unequivocal style that makes us want to turn back history. Based on the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, Dominik presents an epic western stripped down to its barest elements. The 34-year-old Jesse James (brilliantly played by Brad Pitt) attempts to settle down with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and children under the alias of Thomas Howard. The gunfighter remains unable to escape his renown as America’s most popular train robber. Jesse’s least intelligent follower is Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the younger brother of trusted James Gang member Charley (Sam Rockwell). Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance that proves him to be a character actor of immense creativity, clarity, and composure. Cinematographer Roger Deakins ("In the Valley of Elah") utilizes a "big-sky image system as formally composed chapter breaks to seamlessly magnify the story’s epic qualities. Intermittent voice-over narration is the single element that keeps perfection at bay in this highly original addition to the western genre.
An early scene between Jesse’s stoic older brother Frank (majestically played by Sam Shepard) and the 19-year-old wormy Bob Ford (Affleck) expresses Ford’s infuriating ability to ingratiate himself with the robbers he idolizes. Frank keeps lookout in the thick woods near the James Gang camp. Affleck’s Bob Ford hunches low on the ground in the thick woods. He pleads his case for tagging along on as Frank’s "sidekick" on the coming night’s robbery. In Affleck’s wispy bright voice we hear the strains of a sycophant plying his trade. Frank impatiently dismisses Ford back to the camp where Ford’s older brother Charley (Rockwell) does some verbal jousting with Dick (Paul Schneider), and Jesse’s cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner), about "poetry not working on whores." "You can hide things in vocabulary," Dick tells the others. The humorously loaded message sends clues to interpreting the film’s measured use of language that gains significance as a yardstick of historic and cultural meanings.
After pistol whipping a bank guard during the film’s only train robbery Jesse explains to his shocked cohorts, "They got their company rules, and I got my mean streak, and that’s how we get things done around here." It’s a satisfying bit of self description that shows just how Jesse James rationalizes his actions. It also evinces how James views his compartmentalized attack on social injustice enacted by thieves with pens, who eventually disguise their crimes under the name of "corporation."
The suspenseful heist that transpires is a noir-inflected nighttime mission that exemplifies Jesse’s effectiveness as a criminal mastermind. Jesse’s innate ability to judge character and situations makes Bob Ford a surprising Achilles’s heel for James. The inescapable duality between the men energizes the story.
Jesse gets wind of a plot against him by his former gang. He traces their steps back to Wood and Dick who have let violent jealousy over a woman drive a stake between them. The inciting event allows for a remarkably erotic outhouse scene between Dick and a not-so-distant relative of Wood, Sarah Hite (Kailin See), when she invites Dick into the outhouse with the telling line "And you thought I was a lady."
Andrew Dominik keeps the script’s subtext of celebrity culture at a distance until the film’s coda resolves Robert Ford’s life after killing the famed gunslinger legend that he once worshiped from dime novels. Here is a modern western art film that utilizes the camera’s discreet observations to sculpt a tidal wave of generational zeitgeist from a clash of ideals. It is a brilliant movie to be savored on the big screen.
Rated R. 160 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
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