Gentleman bandit. Heartless killer. Confederate martyr. Rank opportunist. Inspiration. Abomination. Jesse James has been considered all of the above by various people at various times, but Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is largely agnostic regarding such disputes. The film is concerned less with the content of James's character than with the meaning of his murder. Insofar as it asks a question, it is whether a man who has been elevated to myth can continue to coexist with mere mortals. The answer is right there in the title.
The film opens in September 1881, seven months before its titular act. James (Brad Pitt) is 34 years old and living in Kansas City under the name Thomas Howard. The legendary James-Younger gang—which had for years preyed upon banks, stagecoaches, trains, and even a county fair—is no more, its members all caught or killed, save for James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). For a final train robbery, the two men assemble a motley crew of "petty thieves and country rubes," among them Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) and his young brother Bob (Casey Affleck), an uncomfortably eager young outlaw. Frank does not take to the boy ("You don't have the ingredients, son," he explains), but Jesse is less discerning: "I don't care who comes with me, never have. That's why they call me gregarious."
The train job takes place at night in the Missouri woods, and Dominik stages the scene with uncommon beauty. The gang has thrown a lumber barricade across the tracks and, as the locomotive approaches it, its lone eye shines like a porthole to another world. If the opening heist in 3:10 to Yuma, the season's first attempt at revivifying the Western, had all the rowdiness of a sporting event, The Assassination's resembles opera. It is the first of many wonders in a stately epic that, at two hours and forty minutes, takes its time and rewards those willing to do the same.
The robbery itself goes smoothly enough, but the associations it entailed will gradually prove fraught. Frank James soon abandons the gang to move East, leaving Jesse with no comrades beyond the miscreants assembled for the job: his cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner); hyperarticulate ladies' man Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider); slow, nervous Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt); and, of course, Charley and Bob Ford.
The bulk of the film concerns itself with the shifting dynamics between these men, the affection and jealousies, alliances and betrayals. The others are all in awe of James, but terrified of him, too, and not without reason. The tension is most acute for young Ford, who has kept a stash of Jesse James storybooks under his bed since youth. He craves James's attention with a lover's ardor; for him, the famous outlaw is tonic and talisman, an opportunity to transcend his dismal existence. "I been a nobody all my life," he confesses at one point. "And ever since I can remember it, Jesse James has been as big as a tree."
James, for his part, has begun to shrink inside himself. Years of being hunted by lawmen and Pinkertons have taken their toll, burying his gregariousness under layers of paranoia and superstition. He is a man who knows that death is coming for him but is uncertain from which direction.
The temptation for Pitt to deliver a Big Performance in such a role must have been considerable, but he (and Dominik) wisely opt for understatement. Unlike Russell Crowe's Ben Wade in Yuma, James is a man with nothing left to prove, no one he needs to impress. His legend, already secure, is evident less in his own demeanor than in that of the people around him. "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them," an authorial voiceover declares at the opening of the film, and, not infrequently, we see the sweat on his companions' brows.
This becomes an ever more common occurrence as the film progresses and James's suspicion that his men might betray him grows. As he calmly interrogates one gang member or another, his reputation hovers around him like black smoke, sapping their resolve even as it bolsters his own. There are a few occasions when he resorts to his pistol; more typically, an ominous, attentive silence is weapon enough.
One might expect Ford, with his nervous smile and schoolboy bravado, to be the first to crack, but he manages to endure James's scrutiny even as he prepares to betray him. "I got qualities that don't come shining through right at the outset," Ford announces at one point, and while it's a laughable boast, it is not an entirely empty one. Ford's glaring weaknesses do mask underlying strengths, and Affleck captures the contradiction with skill, hugging the line between sympathetic and merely pitiable.
The rest of the cast, too, is exceptional. Shepard, unsurprisingly, seems an actor born for Westerns who's had the misfortune of working in an era when there have been few worthy ones made. Rockwell and (especially) Schneider give sharp, telegraphic performances as members of the ill-fated gang. Even peripheral characters—Mary-Louise Parker as James's wife, Zee; Kailin See as the unhappy bride of a despised old man—make the most of limited screen time thanks to Dominik's meticulous direction and the literate script he adapted from Ron Hansen's eponymous novel.
To describe the film as a breakthrough for Dominik would be to damn it with understatement. The director's only previous outing, the Australian film Chopper (2000), was a fascinating criminal psychoportrait, but it had nothing approaching the epic sweep, narrative texture, or sheer cinematic ambition of The Assassination. It is true that the film could perhaps be a touch shorter (an earlier cut ran to more than three hours), but Dominik's unhurried pace and care for detail offer rewards in every scene.
He is immeasurably aided by the contributions of cinematographer Roger Deakins. His luminous landscapes are reminiscent of Terrence Malick; his interior shots, often candle-lit, are compositions of light and shadow as elegant as oil paintings. Had Rembrandt lived in 19th century Missouri, this is what his work would have looked like. Deakins, who is probably best known for his work with the Coen brothers, is enjoying a remarkable run this year, having also shot Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah and the Coens' upcoming No Country for Old Men. At Oscar time, the question may come down to which film he wins for.
In the end, though, it is the thematic richness of Dominik's film that makes it not only the best film of the year so far but a strong contender for the greatest Western since Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West nearly 40 years ago. Like most modern variations on the genre, The Assassination takes the form of an elegy, not merely for the Old West but for the Western itself. Yet Dominik succeeds in conjuring a sense of loss deeper than that of era or genre: the loss of the belief, naive but nonetheless sustaining, that giants might still walk the earth.
In Once Upon a Time in the West, the gunmen who once bestrode the American wilderness were pushed aside by commerce and technology, the relentless encroach of civilization. In Dominik's more melancholy telling, they were laid to rest by wannabes, boys with picture books and pop guns and a gnawing hunger for notoriety. After Ford shoots James, he briefly becomes a national icon--more recognized, for a time, than the president--but it is an empty, parasitic fame, the ghost-twin of James's legend. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the story of this transition, of the moment in America when myth was murdered by mere celebrity and we were left, perhaps forever, with only the latter's meager consolations.
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