Monday, September 24, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

We don't often think of murderers and criminals as being assassinated. Usually, they are killed, or taken out, or even executed. In fact, aside from Jesse James, the only other criminal I can recall being "assassinated" is Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a weighted term reserved for the legendary or notorious, and James was both.

James' killer, Robert Ford, sought exactly this kind of noteriety all his life, only to find it constantly unattainable. Andrew Dominik's masterful, anti-epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford opens with the future assassin presenting himself to Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his similarly famous brother Frank (Sam Shepard) as an eager young apprentice, hoping to learn about the outlaw life at the feet of two masters. He's stung when rejected, probably because it brings to mind all the taunts and torments passed down to him by his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), a member of the James Gang. Ford claimed to have killed James out of fear for his life, and in the hopes of receiving a $10,000 reward from the Governor, but Dominik's film seems to suggest that it all comes back to this initial meeting. Ford had idolized James, had seen himself following in the James legacy, and no devastation could be more complete than to be mocked and humiliated by his idol.

Of course, this is just one theory. Dominik's film wisely remains ambiguous to the end, quiet and reserved, observing these men as they navigate increasingly complex and uncertain relationships from a distance. Apart from some occasional voice-over narration (most of it likely taken from Ron Hansen's novel on which the film is based), events unfold with a keenly natural grace.

As in David Fincher's similarly-impressive Zodiac from earlier this year, there's a precision and exactness to Dominik's film; he recreates these events with an acute sense of mounting dread, allowing incidents to collect into a narrative at their own lifelike pace. We don't so much hurry from once event to the next as we connect inevitable dots. These individuals - the increasingly-paranoid James, the emotionally brittle Ford, the flippant womanizer Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), and the remainder of James' crew - are on a collision course. We know they will find their way to one another eventually, and Dominik gives us the space to really wonder how, and what the aftermath of these encounters will be like. This is clearly one of the smartest and most satisfying films of 2007, an ingenious exploration of the weight of infamy and the despair that naturally follows overzealous ambition. It's not to be missed.

Brad Pitt's performance as James melds two of his most disparate characters. We have the unpredictable frenzy of Tyler Durden married to the enigmatic, occasionally baffling Joe Black in a single persona. By virtue of his fierce intelligence and the legends that have sprouted up around him, Pitt's James has clearly grown used to being the center of attention and the smartest man in the room. So accustomed is he to manipulating and controlling all those around him, these ploys have become a kind of second nature, until, by his own admission, he can hardly recognize himself or know his true feelings.

We encounter James as he and his brother Frank are pulling their last job together, robbing a train with the aid of a newly-assembled gang. (Their initial band of outlaws are all deceased or in prison). The robbery is unsatisfying; they don't collect all that they hoped for, and Jesse kills a man in anger and frustration. The brothers part ways, and Jesse returns to his family, entering a long, tortured descent into paranoid madness.

It's this Jesse to whom Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) attaches himself. Awed by the man's celebrity and impressed by his devil-may-care attitude, Ford at first wants only to ingratiate himself into James' circle, to impress his idol like a boy performing for his father. But as the film progresses, Ford makes some disappointing discoveries - mainly that James is just a man, and a cruel one at that. Dominik, unlike almost any of his directorial peers, demonstrates a great deal of interest in actual performances. He gives his actors space, stretching scenes on for far longer than a typical film, even a period drama, would typically allow. We don't hear about Ford losing his faith in the legendary Jesse James; we see it play out in real time, watching the events of 1881 wear down James' resolve and disabuse Ford of his childhood gunslinging fantasies.

The temptation to overplay James' mounting dread must have been significant, but Pitt shrewdly keeps it all bottled up inside, masking his outbursts and temper tantrums as playful humor or theatrics. Hence the Tyler Durden comparisons. Just as Durden knows he's really the same guy as the Narrator, but allows his alter-ego the time to figure this out, James constantly knows more than he lets on and turns each conversation into a challenge. Right up until the moment of his death (hey, it's not a spoiler if it's in the title!), James is trying to play those around him, to show them one thing while secretly plotting another outcome entirely.

The result is one of the most intense, white-knuckle 3 hour movies imaginable. Assassination of Jesse James takes its time developing, but once it has established the key relationships, the film enters a kind of desperate end game. Dominik (who also wrote the screenplay) composes this verbal gamesmanship expertly. The dialogue is reminiscent of some of Patrice Leconte's films (particularly Ridicule), with each statement secretly betraying a hidden reality behind (or, more accurately, above) the surface.

Even the slower, more elegiac sequences are riveting due to Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography. Still photography is a frequent motif in the film; much of the denouement concerns the still photos of James' corpse peddled in dime stores in the years after the film's events. Deakins works this into the visual structure of the film brilliantly, sometimes patterning the style to resemble images shot with an old-fashioned pinhole camera and other times allowing an eerie, photo-like stillness to settle into real life.

At one point, James lays a barricade for an oncoming train and rather dubiously stands atop the structure, willing the train to stop with his bare hands. Shot from behind by Deakins, with the train's lights catching the locomotive steam and surrounding the silhouette of Pitt in the center, we see James as Ford must have: serene, regal, larger than life, almost superpowered. No real man could live up to this kind of glamorized imagery and mythmaking, and James was a very real man.

There's an odd nostalgia in Dominik's film, but it's always unclear for what he's actually nostalgic. His film seems to argue that reality is always subordinate to a well-told yarn, that the tragedy of Robert Ford's life was finally doing something noteworthy and attaining fame only to be haunted by the path that brought him there. Yet the film seems to yearn for a time when mysterious, shadowy, highly fictionalized legends could still walk among us. (Having Nick Cave write the music for the film, and perform a song himself near the conclusion, highlights this theme beautifully. He writes old-fashioned songs about folk tales and grim fantasies, stories about a lost time in America's past that never really existed but which tells us about ourselves all the same).

In the era of YouTube, it takes very little to become well-known, and celebrity can last a few weeks before dissipating. Thousands of people today are as famous as Jesse James once was, so in a way, no one could possibly be that famous ever again. Perhaps this is the real lament at the core of The Assassination of Jesse James - real or not, this sort of shared cultural moment can't be replicated in the era of television and cyberspace. The world's too small and everything's watched too closely. This may be the singular film of 2007. See it in a theater.


Anonymous said...

I think it's pretty much an instant classic. Just incredibly well made.


Anonymous said...

The family of Jesse James have posted their own review of Pitt's movie on their family web site, Stray Leaves:

jordan said...

way to make me even more upset this isnt playing in chicago.

Cory said...

agreed. best film of the year so far, hands-down.

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