Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

"It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he did feel,
For he ate of Jesse's bread, and he slept in Jesse's bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave."
- The Ballad of Jesse James

In Andrew Dominik's extraordinary western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we see the iconic outlaw through the eyes of his killer. Set in the final months of his life, the opening part of the film gives us Jesse James (played brilliantly by Brad Pitt) as the legendary figure of the old west. An omniscient narrator (the perfectly-pitched Hugh Ross) tells us that “Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed.”, and a 19 year-old named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) gazes upon his hero with a look of unadulterated awe. Robert and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) have been inducted into the James gang prior to their final train robbery, in September of 1881, and the younger Ford boy is eager to impress, to prove his worth as an honorary member of the group.

But as the story progresses our view of Jesse James begins to distort and darken; the layers of myth are stripped away, revealing the increasingly paranoid, sociopathic and fatalistic man underneath. At the same time, Robert Ford begins to see his idol in a different light, and his hero-worship is gradually superseded by a gnawing sense of resentment, and a desire for his own place in the spotlight. "I can't figure you out" James tells him at one point, "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"; but he knows exactly who Robert Ford is and what he wants, and the pair move inexorably towards a violent pas de deux which will underline their names in history.

We have always tended to romanticise gangsters and criminals, to revel in their dastardly deeds while occasionally overlooking the unpleasant consequences of their actions, and Jesse James was one of the first real superstars in American culture. The legend of "The Gentleman Outlaw" was cultivated through pulp novels detailing his exaggerated escapades, and Robert Ford devours these stories, keeping the books among the collection of James memorabilia under his bed. Ford is Jesse James' number one fan, worshipping the outlaw with the fervent intensity of a stalker. He stands in front of his mirror, aping his hero's gestures, wearing his hat in the same fashion, even pretending to have a missing finger in the same place; and he knows every little detail of the James family history. At a creepy dinner table performance, he is encouraged to list the similarities between himself and Jesse James – same height, same eye colour, both the youngest in their family – and Jesse seems both intrigued by and wary of this odd youngster.

The casting of Brad Pitt in this role cleverly plays on his own celebrity status, and the actor delivers a movie star performance in the best sense of the term. He lets his natural screen presence and star quality work for the character, making him a commanding, quietly menacing figure; our eyes are always drawn towards Jesse James even when he's doing no more than sitting silently in an old rocking chair. As the film progresses, James becomes increasingly unstable and dangerous – firing bullets into the ice he stands on, beating a young boy senseless before crying inexplicably – and Pitt brings a real edginess to these scenes; the weird, almost maniacal laughter which explodes from him after threatening Ford's throat with a knife sends a shiver down the spine. As James, Pitt looks at those in his company as if he could see right down into their souls, and as his character's ultimate fate looms on the horizon, Pitt's performance becomes increasingly haunted by an ineffable sadness and disillusionment – his acting has never possessed such gravity and potency.

Pitt, however, is eclipsed here by a truly stunning display from Casey Affleck as Ford, and if there has been a better piece of acting in a film this year then I haven't seen it. There's something needy and weasel-like about Robert Ford, with his crooked smile and his drowsy eyes, and at times he's like an annoying child in the way he fawns sycophantically over James or lingers at the fringes of the group. But as Ford becomes consumed by his self-loathing and feelings of rejection, Affleck expresses the conflicting emotions coursing through this character with astonishing insight; his Robert Ford is not an easy character to like by any means, but he's endlessly watchable. Throughout the film, there isn't a false note among the picture's brilliantly-chosen cast, with Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider and Sam Shepard (a brief but vivid cameo) all providing rich characterisations as members of the James gang.

The Assassination of Jesse James is not a contemporary film which sets out to tear down or deconstruct the legends of the west. Instead, this adaptation of Ron Hansen's speculative novel embraces the myth and then digs beneath it, and expands upon it, to create a fully immersive vision of Jesse James' twilight months. It is also a film which plays on an epic scale while focusing on the intimate; taking its time to investigate the tense and insidious relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford, and favouring atmosphere and detail over action. This is Andrew Dominik's second film as a director, coming seven years after his excellent debut Chopper (another film dealing, in part, with the hollow fame of a criminal), and it's one of the boldest, oddest and most distinctive pieces of filmmaking to come from an American studio for some time. Dominik's direction recalls the introspective, thoughtful westerns of the 1970's such as McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Hired Hand and Days of Heaven. He gives the story ample room to unfold at a measured pace, the violence occurs in quick, brutal bursts, and the characters are distinguished by their moral ambiguity. The spirit of those 70's pictures is also evoked by the beautiful images conjured up by Dominik and master cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes every scene a dazzling play of light and shade. The name of Roger Deakins has been a guarantee of quality for many years now, but his work here takes the breath away like never before, with many scenes – particularly the incredible night-time train robbery – being near-miraculous in their execution.

Even with its 160 minute running time The Assassination of Jesse James is as dramatically compelling as it is aethstetically remarkable. Dominik gives so many scenes an unexpected slant, particularly during the final third when the titular assassination – and its consequences – dominates proceedings. An uneasy tension pervades the film's atmosphere as the act itself plays out, and it is given a biblical resonance by James' seeming complicity in the act – both men go through the motions as if the whole incident has been preordained. The film doesn't end with the death of Jesse James, though. We stay with Robert Ford as he tries to come to terms with the fame his actions have bestowed upon him. He tours the country with Charley, re-enacting the assassination onstage for the paying public, but the public are a fickle bunch, and his reputation quickly leads to hostility. While the Jesse James legend expands after his passing, Ford is vilified in the famous ballad (performed here by Nick Cave, who also wrote the superb score) as "The dirty little coward" who shot Jesse in the back, and he spends his last days drowning his sorrows in grim bars, reflecting upon the empty rewards of his infamy.

I love this film. The Assassination of Jesse James is an exquisitely crafted slice of Americana; a film in which every element – the performances, the cinematography, the music and the flawless production design – come together to produce something evocative and haunting and deeply satisfying. It retells a legend which has been fodder for books and films for over a century, but it tells it in a fashion which makes us feel like we're experiencing it anew. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with its long title, longer running time, and its elegiac, poetic tone, the film has failed to find its audience among the masses; but I think it's going to be a piece of work which will succeed over time, as more people discover it and take it to their hearts. Films as beautiful, imaginative and ambitious as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are all too rare in American cinema – cherish it.