The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
dir. Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider
The most pretentious title of the year could have been the most pretentious film of the year – it aspires to be “Days of Heaven”, but it also has the potential to be “Heaven’s Gate”. It lies somewhere in between. The often told story of Jesse James and his storied death at the hands of his friend Robert Ford is told with a quiet intensity that elevates the story into the ultra strata of American myth.
The James in this film is an enigmatic bi-polar hero. He can be a decent, peaceful and loving father to his wife and kids one minute and a sadistic maniac willing to beat a child down repeatedly with his fists the next. Robert Ford is a celebrity-wannabe of the 19th century. He has worshiped Jesse since his youth and makes a concerted effort to befriend him and become part of his gang. He’s eventually brought in to help with their bad deeds, but right at a time when there’s much internal conspiracies against Jesse. With the authorities hot on his trail eventually Ford gets bribed into killing the man he once idolized.
For most of the film, the machinations of the plot seem perfunctory to the denouement or ‘fourth act’. After James is killed the story finally gets interesting when we see the country’s reaction to the death of their storied anti-hero. Robert Ford becomes famous for killing James and exploits it as any reality or 15-min-fame celebrity would today. He becomes overexposed and all hopes of achieving greatness in his life from his actions are lost. I’m hesitant to be specific about how this finale plays out, but it absolutely makes the film.
The film is told with a documentary-like omniscient narrator – very similar to the narration in “Little Children”. It’s not a Midwest or Southern voice, it’s out of place, perhaps someone from the 'civilized' north recounting the story. We all know the story of the James gang from the countless Hollywood films, and it’s actually refreshing to see the film made not like the current trend of ‘gritty’ reality films but like a fairytale bedtime story.
So the film becomes about the myth of Jesse James – not the man. In fact, I’d argue James as a supporting character to the lead – Robert Ford played by Casey Affleck. Affleck is well cast. He’s been playing the affable meek runt his entire career, and finally he gets to take this character to another level.
Director Andrew “Chopper” Dominik and producer/star Brad Pitt have their sights set on texture and mood, and, going by the credits, they clearly screened the works of David Gordon Green, Terrence Malick, and the Coen Bros before crewing up. So I doubt it’s a coincidence Paul Schneider, Roger Deakins, and Sam Shepard show up on the call sheet – not to mention the architect of perhaps its closest cousin – “The Proposition” – Nick Cave, who provides the melancholy soundtrack.
Roger Deakins seems to be shooting every prestige film in Hollywood these days – this season alone he’s shot “Jesse James”, “In the Valley of Elah” and “No Country for Old Men”. Deakins, the Coen’s frequent DOP, shoots the outdoors so well. Each frame is rich with the texture of a tattered old photograph. I’m sure he’ll be Oscar-nominated for at least one, if not all three of these films. I’d love to see that happen.
“The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford” is no “Days of Heaven”. It hits the myth, but misses the poetry. And thank god for the final 20mins, without which it could, sadly, have been “Heaven’s Gate”. Stick through the two hours before the finale, it will be worth the $11.95. Enjoy.