Sunday, April 4, 2010
Modern Masterpiece: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is, like James himself, a brooding, uneasy and captivating film. Melancholy landscapes of wind-swept Midwestern wheat fields are spelled by moments of tense, brutal violence. An unsettling score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis meanders between shots, providing much of the gravity and suffocating sense of impending doom that hangs over every scene. The film draws comparisons to Terrence Malick's 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, and the similarities in tone are striking. The omniscient voice-over, the impeccable landscapes, the somber, detached characters prone to ruthless violence one moment and tears the next. In the midst of all this, Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford give the best performances of their careers. Those hoping to see a polished, traditional Western may be disappointed by the poetry and pacing of this 160-minute character study, but those with a bit of patience will be handsomely rewarded.
The film takes place in 1882, with Jesse James 34 years old and approaching the end of his days as a train robber. For their final job, Jesse and his brother Frank assemble a rag-tag gang of petty thieves and unsavory characters. Neither of these, 19 year old Robert Ford still desperately attempts to ingratiate himself with his idol Jesse James. At the behest of his brother Frank, Jesse allows Bob to tag along on this final robbery attempt. After parting ways following the crime, the paths of Bob and Jesse begin to intertwine with increasing intensity as Jesse's paranoia emboldens him to find and kill members of the gang lest they kill him first for the huge bounty on his head.
Brad Pitt is riveting as James, playing the outlaw with a nuance and sadness he's rarely shown before. James is not the ruthless mastermind he once was, but he is not above lapsing into moments of brutality to assert his dominance. More than anything, Jesse appears to be consumed by paranoia which is tempered by his desperate attempts to maintain his devil-may-care facade. Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is an insecure and defensive young man, who is both thrilled and repulsed to be in the presence of his hero. His obsession with James manifests itself in many ways disquieting ways, from a thorough mental list of the things they have in common to fantasizing himself with Jesse's bullet wounds and amputated middle finger. James responds this admiration with a chess match of disgust and paternal care, whose pendulum swings higher with every scene. Those who dismiss Jesse's death as anticlimactic have missed the point entirely, and are better served by watching the film again from the start. It stands up with the unglamorous tone of the film and the nature of the two men.
The final 10 minutes are as affecting an epilogue as I can remember, speaking to the very nature of fame and infamy and the fine line separating the two. Sometimes you seem destined for fame and wake up infamous, other times you rob trains and murder without remorse and become the stuff of legends. While I will concede that James and Ford aren't the kindred spirits Bob believes them to be, they also aren't nearly as different as Jesse hopes they are.