2007 // USA - Canada // Andrew Dominik // November 6, 2007 // Theatrical Print
A - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford opens with the tattered remnants of the James gang preparing for and committing their final train robbery. It's a marvelous sequence, even spooky at times, and serves to introduce us to both of the titular characters. Despite the bloody violence that unfolds when the train is boarded and ransacked, the sequence stands apart from the rest of the film. Sudden acts of brutality punctuate the remaining story, but none can be regarded as standard action sequences. Instead, The Assassination makes much of tension of imminent violence, signaling its approach with its spoiler title. It is about knowing that something traumatic and transformative is going to happen, but not the when or where or how. In this the film echoes the themes of every ambitious Western that ruminates on industrialization, expansion, and destiny, Manifest or otherwise.
As the film opens, Jesse and Frank James are all that remain of their notorious gang, and the brothers have pulled together a band of backwoods misfits for a final heist. Frank vanishes from the film before the end of the first act, but Sam Shepard's gritty performance and Andrew Dominik's elegant screenplay and direction are such that we almost immediately sense his role in the gang. While Jesse slurps chow and lounges with his fawning gang, Frank stands alone, staring at the tracks where the locomotive will pass later that night. He is running through the plan, visualizing possible flaws. In contrast, Jesse's feline anticipation of the crime has him placing his ear on the steel rail at a later point, listening for the approach of wealth, glory, and intoxicating violence. Enter Robert Ford, an obsequious squirt if there ever was one, who first approaches Frank and then Jesse, pleading for a chance to demonstrate his courage in one of their legendary robberies. Robert's brother Charlie has already ingratiated himself to Jesse, and Robert behaves as if he is interviewing for the job of a lifetime.
Casey Affleck is a wonder as Robert, a milquetoast who comes across as alternately creepy, bothersome, and disarming. Frank is mainly annoyed, but Jesse, fiercely cunning and perceptive, seems to sense all three strains in Robert. Affleck creates a cracked speaking manner to convey Robert's fundamental weakness: mumbling into his chest, dropping his sentences into barely discernable sighs, emphasizing the wrong words. Such an exaggerated performance is risky in a lengthy, character-driven film such as The Assassination. It is a credit to Affleck's skill as an actor that we sense Robert's internal struggles and perceive his character arc despite his curious mannerisms.
Following the train robbery, Frank gives up the outlaw life, and the film settles into the structure that it will maintain until the eponymous shooting. Without his brother's discipline and direction, Jesse loses all sense of focus, and quickly descends into paranoia. Brad Pitt plays Jesse with his familiar, magnetic style, but the performance is an undeniable achievement for him. He evokes a menace that has never been present in his other roles. I've always thought that Pitt is an underrated actor, and while he has had some mesmerizing characters--David Mills, Jeffrey Goines, Mickey O'Neil, Tyler Durden--he never seems to appear in especially intricate roles. The Assassination seems to finally deliver where his overwrought, operatic performance in Legends of the Fall failed. Pitt conveys the outlaw's humanity, even his fragility, but never betrays so much of his inner life that the fundamental enigma of the man is banished. After beating a thirteen-year-old boy and threatening him with mutilation during a search for a wayward gang member, Jesse returns to his horse and sobs, quietly and almost shamefully. "Are you okay?," asks a fellow outlaw. Pitt's Jesse offers no explanation, but mounts up and rides away, wordlessly.
The film takes its time unspooling during the period from the train robbery to Jesse's death. Some viewers may find that this section--the bulk of the film--drags on for far too long. There are scenes featuring Jesse's disparate gang members that convey significant plot points, but nonetheless seem unnecessarily ponderous. However, although I was aware of the film's length, I was never tempted to check my watch. The sensation of passing time is a crucial component of The Assassination's drama. The intelligence of Dominik's film lies in the seeming inevitability of Jesse's violent demise. That doom is a vulture that wheels over the story. Dominik conveys this not through heavy-handed foreshadowing, but by examining the nature and evolution of both assassin and victim.
Once Robert has entered Jesse's circle, one of their deaths is assured. However, they do not spend this span of time constantly in one another's company. Jesse flits through the story like a highwayman of old, his demeanor increasingly erratic, his motives inscrutable but always sinister. He appears at the homesteads and hideouts of former gang members in the middle of the night, full of probing questions and menacing cordially. He sees enemies everywhere, and while his assessment may be correct, his bizarre behavior is no less destructive. A man like this is destined for a grisly end.
Meanwhile, Robert's thoughts never leave Jesse, and whenever Jesse appears at his doorstep, he brightens like a worshipful son or a schoolboy with an unrequited crush. From their very first interactions, however, we sense Robert's disillusionment, dissatisfaction, and yearning. Robert luxuriates in a post-heist cigar with Jesse, his childhood hero, and confesses that the moment is a wish fulfilled. Gradually, we realize that this is not enough for Robert. Over dinner with Jesse, he enumerates--first with embarrassment, then enthusiasm--all the similarities between himself and his idol. He speaks constantly of "proving his courage," although to what end he seems uncertain himself. Eventually Robert betrays a fellow gang member to the authorities, a curious reversal for one who professed a lifelong desire to be an outlaw. There is no sense that this is done out of cowardice or self-preservation, but some other need. On the cusp of his notorious deed, Robert roams through Jesse's empty house, trying on his hat, lying on his bed, drinking from his water glass.
Robert is awkward and lacks self-awareness, but he is not stupid. Indeed, beneath his callow demeanor, he seems to share Jesse's intelligence and his fierce insistence that the universe hand him whatever he wants. When the two are in the same room they trade glances and sideways comments. Something passes between them, an uneasy electricity that they both find stimulating even as they despair over its implications.
It's tempting to describe The Assassination as a character study of the first celebrity stalker, but this seems to do the film a disservice. While viewing it, I found myself thinking about the confusion that this bizarre relationship must have engendered in both Jesse and Robert. The railroad, the mechanization of printing, and the expansion of literacy enabled a new phenomenon: the rapid, coast-to-coast distribution of mass media, here embodied in the dime novels that serialized the James gang's exploits. For the first time, a strange sort of relationship became possible, wherein a person could learn in obsessive detail about someone else' life from thousands of miles away. One man could know the other without ever having met him. With these thoughts, I found myself more sympathetic to the ambiguity that both Jesse and Robert seemed to feel about their relationship and its tragic endpoint. It's difficult to imagine how uncanny the whole thing might have felt to them. It is a seductive notion that Jesse James' murder might have been the first criminal act spurred by Information Age alienation.
Dominik presents this tale with distinctive techniques that, while showy, never struck me as distracting or too-clever-by-half. Scenes of dialog are bridged with voice-over narration, often accompanied by shots blurred in a manner that echoes nineteenth century photography. Dominik employs this technique frequently, especially in the film's first half, often to suggest mystery, transience, and melancholy. This is a gorgeous film, filled with natural awe and visual poetry, but not so artfully contrived as to lose its revisionist Western credibility. Terrence Malick was supposedly a strong influence for Dominik on this film, but The Assassination has none of Malick's dream-like, meditative qualities. Rather, I was reminded of the more engrossing strains of narrative historical nonfiction, such as that of David McCullough or Erik Larson. That, I suppose, is a credit to both Dominik and Ron Hansen, on whose novel the film is based.
The landscapes are vivid and intensely textured. I was particularly struck by the use of windows and doors to frame the arrival and departure of human figures, a flourish that grounds the characters in the domestic even as it mythologizes them (capturing them as if in a painting or page of a storybook). There are many moments when one character is spied in the distance by another, a dot coming over the horizon, evoking an underlying tension that called to mind Lawrence of Arabia. Does this approaching traveler represent companionship, opportunity, news, or death? Cinematographer Roger Deakins has an impressive filmography, including several Coen Brothers films. Having seen his mature talent in The Man Who Wasn't There and now The Assassination, my eagerness to see his latest works, In the Valley of Elah and No County For Old Men, has only intensified.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is beautiful, multi-layered, and thoughtful, the sort of Western that elevates the genre and shames self-important dramas with lesser ambitions. It is easily the most intelligent Western in years, and one of the better films of 2007.