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.


Simon said...

Great review, and it is a great movie. Casey Affleck is amazing, I think.

Scott Nye said...

Thanks for spotlighting this, a film probably in my top five for the last decade. I had issues with the rushed ending when it came out - almost certainly where most of the footage was cut from the 4-hour cut that played in...Venice I believe - but since then it's only grown in esteem for me.

Without a doubt the finest hour for Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, and my personal favorite Paul Schneider performance. Also, the screenplay is simply exquisite. Every line is just pitch-perfect, eloquently written and perfectly suiting each character. It's a joy to listen to, even when it sets me on the edge of my seat, three or four viewings later.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments -

Simon - I remember that year I was so upset Casey Affleck didn't win the Oscar for his Best Supporting Actor for his performance. He certainly transformed himself into a great character.

Scott - I agree with you about the screenplay. The narration - much of it straight from Ron Hansen's great book - works beautifully with the cinematography and the dialogue is appropriate to character and time period. I love the talk in the beginning at the campfire when Jesse talks about what the stew needs and Bob puts in weakly, "Dumplings?" Perfect. And I love all the banter at the dinner table when Jesse appears at the house where the gang members are staying - and it leads to much teasing of Bob. Very memorable.

Jason Bellamy said...

What a wonderful appreciation. Nicely done.

I like this movie -- love it in places -- but each time I watch it I find that it has pacing issues. It's slow here (by the end I'm ready for Ford to shoot Jesse already) and then rushes there, particularly in that postscript about Ford's life -- it's so well done, I want more.

It also bothers me that one of my favorite scenes -- involving Schneider's character seducing the wife of the old man -- could really be cut entirely without affecting anything else in the slightest. I can't really justify it being there, but I still love it.

I'm also fond of James Carville's brief turn. That's another great scene.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for the response. The film's pacing bothered me more the first time, but in numerous subsequent viewing, the imagery and screenplay take me along for the ride every time.

I know the Paul Schneider scene you mean, and it's a good one with its period-appropriate diction, but although it could have been shortened, I suppose it's necessary as the motivation for the shootout between Wood Hite and Dick.

Mark A. Fedeli said...

I agree with Jason about the pacing. I loved the patience of the film but it seems clear they didn't know quite how to tell all that story with so slow a pace.

When I first saw it in the theater that dynamic made the film slightly frustrating -- however, watching it again recently on DVD, knowing not to expect any major showdowns or climaxes, it allowed me to really sit back and enjoy the beauty and poetry of the film.

That said, the issue arises with the two sections: before and after Jesse's death. It seems like there was a fascinating story to tell about Robert Ford after the assassination but they scratched the surface only just deep enough to make you think they should have gone deeper -- or not gone that deep at all.

I could've stood for a bit brisker pace in the section prior to Jesse's death and a bit more exposition in the section after it. Or, a longer and more even first section and a more succinct last section.

Anyway, I'd love to see this 4 hour version that was mentioned! Reminds me of Nixon, the Director's Cut of which was a far more complete film than the theatrical.

Richard Bellamy said...

Mark, thanks for the comment. I'd be interested in seeing the longer version, too. Wonder if it includes the Northfield, Minnesota, shootout? The novel did - and this is probably the only movie about Jesse James that doesn't include Northfield.

I see what you're saying about the pacing - though to me the film is mostly about Bob's turmoil leading up to the killing and his overwhelming obsession with Jesse. Once Jesse is gone, that turmoil is gone. Strangely, the film shifts focus a little to look at Charley Ford's decline and suicide. I was satisfied pretty much with the post-assassination narrative; I wouldn't have wanted it to be longer.

Scott Nye said...

Jason - that's my favorite scene, too, and for me, when you have a scene that good, you don't cut it for the world. Anyway, I tend to fall for scenes that are just about sitting with compelling characters, and Dick Liddil certainly is that.

Jason Bellamy said...

... but although it could have been shortened, I suppose it's necessary as the motivation for the shootout between Wood Hite and Dick.

Ah, but my lament isn't that it could be shortened. My lament is that it could have been entirely eliminated. Perhaps there isn't a line of dialogue saying so afterward (though there might be), but essentially all that needs to happen is to have someone say: "Dick nailed the wife of Wood Hite's uncle and now Hite wants to kill him." There, done. It isn't important to dramatize the sexual encounter or the trip to the uncle's house. What must be dramatized is the shootout with Hite, because that later involves Jesse when the Ford brothers struggle to come up with a compelling excuse for a fall from the roof.

Now, again, the who section at the uncle's might be my favorite in the film. Or at least co-favorite with several other scenes. I love it. But in a film that stretches on as this one does, there's really not much need for it. And that's my point.

I think the film's actual pacing problems come in the final days/hours before Ford pulls the trigger. But had it not taken us so long to get there, I'd probably feel differently. And that's where it occurs to me that the scene at Hite's uncle's house (it's his uncle, right? not his dad, right?) could go.

Not trying to convince you. Just saying.

Richard Bellamy said...

Scott and Jason - thanks for the further comments. Jason - definitely see what you're saying about the scene. I agree that the first part of the film could have been shortened - getting us sooner to the whole tension before the assassination, which is nicely built up.