17 February 2008

Movielog, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007
Written and directed by Andrew Dominick
based on the novel by Ron Hansen
160 minutes

Critics discussing this film have focused on the celebrity angle, on the way that the relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) seems to mirror the relationship between modern-day celebrities (like, say, Brad Pitt) and their adoring fans. And that's not necessarily wrong, that angle is most certainly here, and it is one of the keys to understanding this film. But that version of this story is perhaps ninety minutes long -- this version runs over two and a half hours, and there's a lot more going on than that.

The key to this film comes early on. James has recruited a gang of hillbillies from the local lands of Missouri where the film opens, among them Ford, a longer skirting the outskirts of the camp. At the center, though, is a group of local roughnecks questioning Dick Liddil about a hypothetical sexual encounter he once had with a "squaw." Liddil has a hint of poetry to him, but the questions and answers are not only graphic and misogynistic by today's standards, but reveal a startling disconnect from a rudimentary understanding of the relationships between men and women, of the basic biology and contexts of human anatomy. I was reminded of the old myth that the sexual organs of "Oriental" women was oriented sideways rather than up-and-down -- would any adult male today, no matter how backwards, have this kind of misunderstanding?

Perhaps. And maybe I'm seeing something that isn't there, but I suspect that writer/director Andrew Dominick isn't just using this sequence as a way of introducing and humanizing his characters, but to give us a hint of a deeper theme in the film: that of a lack of self-reflexivity to these character's way of viewing themselves. The hillbillies that make up the gang are ignorant not only of the world around them, but of necessity of themselves -- they have no worldly context on which to hang their own self-image. They have needs and desires -- some of them quite noble, as for honor or for love -- but they do not see themselves objectively, as others see them.

Jesse James, then, is the opposite. He is a celebrity, one of the most famous men in America. He is portrayed as charming, likeable, but also psychotic and sociopathic. He is simultaneous a doting father and husband and a man willing to torture a child for information. He has not only newspaper stories but dime novels and tall tales written and told about him, and he is aware of how much invention has gone into these tellings. He knows the lies, he knows the truth, and in that knowledge he among all the characters we see at the beginning of the movie has a glimmering of self-knowledge.

Robert Ford, on the other hand, has only his fantasies of himself. As he is introduced to the viewer he is bragging to Jesse's brother Frank (Sam Shepard) about his toughness and prowess, but Frank (and we) see him instead as a child whose head is filled with false bravado and stories of the great Jesse James. James is his hero (he has dozens of the dime novels starring Jesse hidden in a box under his bed) and he has a great desire to be just like his idol. He begins the movie with a lack of understanding about himself, but will eventually gain the kind of self-knowledge that Jesse has, and it is because of the shock of self-knowledge of his own pathetic nature that he is led to the betrayal and murder of his hero.

Dominick stages this tale against the epic backdrop and wide-open plains of the Midwest, and in long shots and scenes that give the viewer plenty of time to contemplate what's happening on-screen. It's ironic that this film was released the same year as the superlative No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, because all three movies have similar settings and shooting styles. Unlike the Coen Brothers' and Paul Thomas Anderson's masterpieces, though, whose greatness is apparent from their earliest frames, The Assassination of Jesse James seems slow-moving at times, even dull, and it is only upon later contemplation that it's genius becomes apparent.

Before I get lost in the writing and the direction, let me mention the performances. I've read that Milos Foreman likes to choose his actors based on their own lives, i.e. choosing people who have the same kinds of relationships in real life as they will have in the film, and Dominick seems to have done the same here with his two leads -- Pitt plays the iconic celebrity Jesse James, and Casey Affleck plays the overlooked younger brother aching for recognition in his own right.

Affleck in particular is wonderful here -- I've known people living in the backwoods of Alabama who remind me a lot of Robert Ford here, in his pathetic need to be near his hero and his complete lack of understanding as to, well, how pathetic he seems. He is 32 at the time of this writing, perhaps a year or two younger at the time of shooting, but he plays a man barely past adolescence amazingly well -- his voice cracks, his confidence wavers, and he rarely seems to have the gumption to stand straight in his own shoes.

The supporting cast gets less screen time, but there are some standouts here as well. Sam Rockwell plays Robert's brother Charley, and he uses his gift for ingratiating humor to wonderful effect here, getting in good with James and his gang at a time when he's most desperate. Mary-Louise Parker plays James' wife, and while she gets few lines, she makes the best of what she has, doing what she can to protect her family from the implicit threat she sees in Ford. Also walking on for small roles are Michael Parks, Ted Levin (from the TV show Monk), and even political pundit James Carville as a law-and-order governor who sets the pieces in motion for the final standoff.

The film also has a narrator who tells this story as if it were history. Some details of how the James gang did what it did are unknown to posterity, and the film's strength is that is sometimes lets us see how these pieces don't quite add up. The narration helps to put the pieces together on the story, but even then at times we're forced to just shrug and say, "Well, that's how it happened." And the final ten or fifteen minutes serve as a sort of coda to the main action, showing how Ford himself met his end, and giving us the kind of strange resolution that sometimes happens in American life.

The Assassination of Jesse James flopped at the box office, but I suspect it will have a somewhat longer life on DVD. The slow rhythms and long running time are not the kinds of things that draw in audiences, but in the more contemplative and personal environment of the home, perhaps this story has more of the dogeared hominess of an old beloved paperback being read again as if for the first time. What an amazing story, what great performances, what a film; it deserves a bigger audience, and I recommend it to anyone willing to take a chance on this kind of epic storytelling.

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