Saturday, March 13, 2010
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008)
One of my favorite movies of the past decade, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008) examines the turmoil within two parallel minds – that of Jesse James, a notorious outlaw who knows his days are numbered, and that of gang-member-wannabe Robert Ford, a twenty-year-old who worships Jesse and feels an obsessive affinity toward him that borders on the sexual. The twisted workings of these parallel minds are memorably portrayed by two tremendous performances – Brad Pitt as outlaw Jesse James and Casey Affleck as the “coward” Robert Ford. These inner stories of complex conflict, as performed by Pitt and Affleck, are supported by a hauntingly contemplative musical score; achingly lucid cinematography that makes objects like a spoon clinking in a coffee cup, a nickel-plated Smith and Wesson revolver, or water splashing in someone’s face feel almost palpable; and voiceover narration that poignantly catalogues historical detail.
Brad Pitt as Jesse James convinces us of the charisma of this coldly brutal man. He has been an outlaw for fifteen years, has been in hiding for five years after a disastrous bank robbery, and now he’s putting together a ragtag band of bandits for a final train robbery. He looks worn out, worried, regretful. He is estranged from brother Frank (Sam Shepard). He distrusts everyone. His last robbery turns sour and he beats a guard out of rage and frustration. His emotions strained, he puts his head in his saddle and weeps after bullying a young boy. When things seem absurd, he emits a strained, hyperbolic laugh. He does weird things like cutting the heads off garter snakes or shooting at a catfish swimming under a shield of ice. He doesn’t trust Robert Ford in the beginning, but then he risks having him around him when he starts to enjoy the boy’s adulation for him. He seems to invite his death at the hands of Robert Ford.
Casey Affleck is Robert Ford who, as a young boy, turned fascination with Jesse James into an obsession that led him to collect Jesse James mementos in a box: dime novels; newspaper clippings; a bandit’s mask. He not only wants to be near Jesse James; he wants to be Jesse James. He too does weird things. He smells Jesse’s sheets; he sips from Jesse’s water glass. He is clearly an insecure and unhinged psychopath – the perfect young nobody to be an assassin – and we see this in his shifty, half-closed eyes and thin lips that ripple over halting, reticent words. Robert Ford wants to be Jesse James because he wants to be famous like Jesse James – he wants to be somebody – so much so that he will allow himself to kill the man he worships.
Although Robert is the one destined to murder Jesse, he is the runt of a gang of wanton ruffians. Sam Rockwell plays Robert's older brother Charley Ford as a jocular opportunist who submits passively to his brother's monomania and is later eaten up by his popularity as one of the killers of the famous outlaw. Adding to the very strong supporting cast, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil and Jeremy Renner as Jesse's cousin Wood Hite do a great job of fleshing out the kind of thinly courageous tough guys who wait around aimlessly for outlaw glory and end up shot or pressured by the Pinkertons to betray Jesse.
Creating the kind of cinematic world you can almost feel and smell, startlingly beautiful cinematography joins with lyrical voiceover narration that takes on the tone of a classic novel and, at the same time, of a detailed historical documentary about Missouri in 1882. Cinematography and voiceover create a tangible world and build suspense as we are taken into troubled minds that draw two individuals toward a fateful, lethal convergence. This film creates images we remember: Jesse’s dead body strapped to a table for a photograph; Jesse sitting in a chair in his backyard, holding up a handful of writhing garter snakes; Jesse standing in the middle of the Missouri prairie, brooding, seeing his end in an approaching wildfire.