Adapted by writer/director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from the historically based Ron Hansen novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a reimagining of familiar, rough American folklore as a more nuanced and sensitive portrait of one man's soul. Jesse James as the nation's outlaw, and as such, also the nation. What is it that so fascinates us by our own rebellious past that we keep coming back time and time again to this kind of figure?
But, then, I'm getting ahead of myself...
Brad Pitt plays Jesse James at the tail end of his notorious career. He is capricious and jovial, easy to approach, but also possessed of a sadistic streak that will erupt in quick flashes, like a firecracker going off in a bang and then just as quickly passing. In contrast, his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) is serious and business-minded. After years of life on the wrong side of the law, Frank can no longer brook his brother's inconsistencies, and so the train robbery that starts the film rolling is the last for the James Gang.
Which is too bad for Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who has grown up worshipping the Jesse James he read about in cheap novels. His brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) has finally gotten him into the gang, and the creepy little fan manages to weasel his way close to Jesse. The killer is amused and intrigued by his strange admirer, letting him hang around after the smoke has cleared, and then sending the boy away when his adoration becomes too much.
Casey Affleck has always shone signs of having untapped potential, and his performance as Ford finally delivers on that. The shy smiles, the aversion of his eyes, and the odd cadence of his speech make him a truly unnerving character. Though there are eerie parallels to our modern image of fan-as-stalker, the actor doesn't resort to easy tics or Lifetime-movie psychology. Instead, he finds the sympathy inherent in the writing. Dominik let's us see the persecution the boy suffered growing up as the youngest in a family of crooks, and it makes sense that Robert Ford would seek some way to stand apart and silence his detractors. For as much as he gets under your skin, the filmmakers find a way to make him redeemable. Particularly in the third act, when the whole scheme backfires on him.
Dominik is going to get a lot of comparisons to Terrence Malick, and those comparisons are deserved. The fingerprints of Badlands and Days of Heaven are all over The Assassination of Jesse James. The laconic pacing, the lingering on beautiful landscapes (particularly fields of wheat), and the detached voiceover narration are all lifted straight from the Malick playbook. Again, this is not something I'm going to hold against the director, as I think he does it particularly well and makes his own thing out of it. To use a pop culture parallel, if Dominik were fronting a '60s-style pop band, it would be that he has taken what the Beatles have done and expanded on it rather than simply covering the songs they already wrote.
The voiceover is particularly effective in creating the sense that this is a melancholy run-through of a collective memory. As the speaker (Hugh Ross) informs us of specific details about the men on screen, Dominick distorts the edges of his frame, adding a golden fade on all four sides, as if filtered through the prism of nostalgia. These are the moments that can be related from the outside, leading us to the in-between scenes, which puts the viewer in the middle of the drama, on the inside of what's happening.
Much of the picture is given to the James Gang's dissolution, the idle time that follows the train heist. How do you go back to any kind of normal living after something like that? For his part, Jesse James becomes paranoid and morose, smelling rats in every corner. Brad Pitt is a master at these kinds of roles, switching from being everyone's best friend to a brooding egomaniac in easy strides. Granted, he's right to be paranoid, as his killer really does walk among them, only no one really knows it, not even Robert Ford himself. When the deed finally is done, Ford discovers the consequences of killing a legend. He didn't just destroy his own childhood mythology, he put a hole in the same mythology for everyone.
Which is where that whole thing about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford being representative of the American psyche comes in for me. Why do we so love the outlaw and so loathe the snitch? It wasn't that long ago that I was fortunate enough to review Samuel Fuller's 1949 take on the story, I Shot Jesse James, and I noted then that though Fuller had intended to show Ford in a sympathetic light, he failed to build a convincing case in his favor. Interestingly enough, The Assassination of Jesse James hits almost all the same notes as the Fuller picture after the bandit is gunned down, and yet Dominik and Affleck manage to do what Fuller could not. I actually felt sorry for the guy, probably because the public reaction against him really affected him in a quiet, disconcerting way, whereas Fuller's portrayal stayed at a consistent fever pitch.
There is much more I could write about in relation to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's a meaty picture full of plenty of gristle to chew on. With a running time of 160 minutes, there had better be; yet, I didn't feel a moment of the movie. It passed in what felt like half the time, even with its dreamy pacing and lingering on specific scenes. The storytelling is that good. That's the best thing Andrew Dominik picked up from Terrence Malick and his 1970s contemporaries: a commitment to the characters and their tale. With all of the elements working in tandem, from the script stage to the casting and even on to the excellent score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, there's no reason for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to be anything but exceptional.
And exceptional it very much is.