October 19, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Says here you're the Affleck who can act.

Grade: A
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, and Jeremy Renner
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hour, 40 minutes

Among the many scenes in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter Jesse James) that haunt you well after departing the theater, one in particular stands out. One year after felling the notorious outlaw, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and his older brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) are shown onstage in New York City, reenacting the infamous shooting for a packed house. In costume and lacquered in so much make-up they resemble plasticine reproductions of themselves, the spectacle reinforces the notion that truth is often defined by perception – that even with the actual participants present, it is the show that creates reality, not the other way around. To borrow a quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

To his credit, Australian director Andrew Dominik casts his protagonists in a raw, realistic light. Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is a psychotic capable of switching from gregarious to murderous at the blink of his heavy-lidded, darting eyes – Pitt’s performance bears the same qualities that distinguish his best roles (Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch). By contrast, Affleck’s Bob Ford is a mass of feckless neuroses – sycophantic yet strangely sympathetic, an ubër-example of the sycophants suckling off James’ fame late in the outlaw’s life.

America, nay, humankind has always tended to mythologize our villains, whether it is Jack the Ripper or Bugsy Siegel or Bonnie & Clyde. The advent of movies and television has only allowed us to supplant the real with the fictitious, so instead of lionizing the Unabomber or Eric Rudolph, we obsess over Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. No American outlaw is more famous or infamous than Jesse James: to this day, there remain festivals and carnivals throughout the Midwest dedicated to the memory of a killer who murdered at least 17 people and robbed scores of others with the help of his brother Frank and the rest of his gang during a decades-long reign of terror. Meanwhile, the twenty-year-old who cooperated with law enforcement to both protect himself and rid society of this blight was reviled, eventually gunned down himself, and is now resigned to the dustbin of history.

Ford’s journey from glint-eyed admirer to resentful onlooker is cast at times as something akin to the death of the pop-star Selena at the hands of her fan club president, at others like Willard’s descent into the heart of darkness to terminate the deranged Col. Kurtz. At the moment James lays down his gun-belt and knowingly turns his back to a gun-toting Ford, the film becomes yet another reminder – like the recent 3:10 to Yuma – that it is often the infamous who write their own legacy.

Jesse James is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on celebrity and the concept of hero-worship, a longing gaze on the sepia-soaked days of yesteryear refracted into a piercing commentary on our contemporary culture. Epic in scope and deliberate in pace, the film is knowingly inspired by Terrence Malick except to the extent Jesse James also boasts character development and thematic focus. Dominik also draws on the stylings of Sam Peckinpah, Walter Hill, and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller while carving out his own distinction style. It is a haunting film made more so by an infectious soundtrack from Warren Ellis and Australian musician Nick Cave (who, ironically, wrote the script to last year’s Aussie-made neo-Western, The Proposition) and the utterly exact, gorgeous, Oscar-worthy cinematography of Roger Deakins, who frames every image as artwork conveying both the nostalgia and gritty, dirty authenticity of the setting.

The 2 hour, 40 minute running time will prove daunting only to those unwilling to be enveloped in the atmospheric tableau. Jesse James rides again, whether in the history books or the storybooks.

Neil Morris

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