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Friday, Jan. 11, 2008
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'
Wild West 'hero' knock' knockin' on hell's door
The story of Western outlaw Jesse James gets rewritten for every generation — indeed it was being rewritten even while he lived. As the former confederate guerrilla-turned-bandit embarked on a spree of bank and train robberies in the 1870s, gunning down unarmed bystanders repeatedly, James was also writing letters to a sympathetic (anti-Union) editor at the Kansas City Times, slyly embellishing his myth as a modern-day Robin Hood.
"We are not thieves," wrote James. "We are bold robbers, and I am proud of the name, for Alexander The Great was a bold robber, and Julius Caesar, and Napoleon Bonaparte, and Sir William Wallace. . . . We rob the rich and give to the poor."
Megalomania aside, none of this was true, but a great many people — especially supporters of the confederacy aggrieved by postwar repression — wanted to believe it was.
In this sense, Jesse James was the 19th century's O.J., a man whose sins, however flagrant, were overlooked to the extent he could make it look like he was getting railroaded by the system. Once upon a time, cinema bought these myths, too; 1939's "Jesse James" had Tyrone Power playing an entirely sympathetic outlaw, fighting against the railroads and big banks, and that trend has largely continued through today (with the exception of 1973's Vietnam-era negativism in "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid").
People want to believe in the rebel standing up for his farmland and his mother, but isn't there also something mythic in the truth? The story of a populist charmer who used ideology as a cover for his own violent excesses and personal gain, spinning the media to create his own realities — if that isn't a cautionary myth to inform current times, I don't know what is.
Australian director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper"), working closely from a novel by Ron Hansen, focuses on the last year of the outlaw's life in "The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Dominik managed to score Brad Pitt for the iconic lead role, and the actor turns in an intense performance; his James is both winningly charismatic and scarily psychotic — the O.J. Jesse James at last.
The film begins in 1881 with the James Gang's last train robbery. The original gang members have been mostly killed or imprisoned, and brothers Jesse and Frank James (Sam Shephard) are now fielding the B-team, a bunch of disorganized yokels including their cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner), and brothers Charley and Robert Ford (Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck, both excellent here.)
This is an intensely character-driven film, and after the first burst of action during the robbery the film settles down into a slow-burning study of paranoia and betrayal as the detectives close in and the gang's members start suspecting and killing each other. Viewers expecting the traditional genre pleasures of a Western should disabuse themselves of the notion. Gunfights, no; long, intense conversations and rides through vast, stunning landscapes, yes.
This kind of film is one critics usually call "mesmerizing" — which, depending on your attention span, might also be called "boring." ("Zodiac" also springs to mind.) This critic will judge Dominik as being a bit too languid in his pacing — if he'd trimmed another 20 to 30 minutes, this would have been excellent; as is, it takes a long, meandering time to get to what we all know is coming — Robert Ford whacking James.
But it's the how and why that Ford got to this point that makes the film fascinating. The dynamic between these two men drives the story: James, friendless and suspicious of all; Ford, a seemingly harmless hanger-on who has totally bought the myth about James and worships the ground he walks on. Affleck is unnervingly good, whining on in a weedy voice about how he wants to become Mr. James' "sidekick"; he's a groupie more than a bandit, and James marvels at his naivete. Ford's fate is truly karmic; having bought the myth of Jesse James, he curdles when confronted with the reality of the man. Yet when he finally manages to kill the nation's most-wanted outlaw, he's shocked to find himself being jeered by people who still buy Jesse's myth.
One need look no further than Britney Spears to note that curious dynamic in which America builds up its idols as impossibly perfect before pulling out the knives. "The Assassination of Jesse James" shows us that dynamic is nothing new, and that celebrity has always been a dubious benefit. One gets the sense Pitt did not have a hard time imagining his role.