Monday, January 25, 2010
The Assassination of Jesse James by That Coward Robert Ford
Jesse James was one of the first American criminals to be celebrated by a public still troubled by the wounds of the civil war. Setting the stage for Al Capone later on, he was considered an outlaw in the vein of Robin Hood and probably America's first real celebrity. Before there were movies, he was fictionalized in countless news reports and dime novels achieving legendary status in his own lifetime and long afterwards.Brad Pitt's portrayal of Jesse James here is flawless, showing humanity, brutality, and an otherworldly quality that's suits the status of his subject.
Pitt's Jese James exhibits a deep weariness, as if he's seen everything that will happen already, but can't help trying to prevent it. When James appears (always unexpectedly) in a room, you can feel the unease of of everyone around him. James asks simple questions with deeper meanings and watches everyone squirm to answer right. Switching instantly from the most affable man in the room, to an inhumanly accusing stare. You get the sense that Jesse James could kill you with a look if needed. Jesse himself says "There ain't no peace when Jesse's around." and he's absolutely right.
As the film progresses, Jesse starts questioning everyone around him, suspecting (rightly so) that the record breaking bounty the government put on his head will drive his friends to betray him. He moves frequently renting homes under different names. Even his kids don't know who he really is, thinking of him instead as Mr. Howard. You could call it paranoia if his suspicions weren't always right. An official talking rith Bob Ford after he's agreed to bring in Jesse James says, "we don't know how but he always knows what's going on. He'll know I was here talking to you. Count on it." Jesse reads the future from entrails, he reads signs from nature, he even gives snakes the names of his enemies and then kills them. He comes across more as a force of nature than a man at times.
However, as hard as it is to remember when Jesse James is around, this movie isn't really about him, it's about Robert Ford the man who shot him. Casey Affleck plays Bob Ford in a performance that's as great as it is hard to like. Bob Ford is a smitten kid who worships a legend. His awkwardness when trying to make an impression on Frank and Jesse is painful to look at. He drops sentiments like "I'm destined for great things." into conversation, not realizing that it's about as convincing as writing BADASS on your T-shirt. Frank James (Sam Shephard) immediately dismisses him as a nuisance, barely hearing a word that Bob Ford says. Bob manages to get around Frank and fortunately (or not) discovers that Jesse at this point in time will let anyone ride with them.
After robbing a train with the James gang, he can't stop smiling from ear to ear. He finally gets a minute alone with Jesse, joining him to smoke a cigar on the porch. He tells Jesse all about the books he's read about him. "All lies" James tells him adding that he doesn't have to keep smoking the cigar if it doesn't agree with him. Ford is ecstatic the next day when Jesse sends the gang home but lets him stay. He doesn't realize that he's only staying to help Jesse move. Unexpectedly he allows Bob to stay a few days extra, during which time Bob fantasizes about staying forever accepted as a "cousin" to Jesse's kids. Jesse gets unsettled realizing that Bob is watching him take a bath. He asks Bob "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" before sending Bob home. Bob struggles to handle the rejection from his idol, but clearly never gets over it.
Voice over narration is used throughout the movie, giving it the feel of a documentary, or a movie that's a novel at the same time. (The movie was adapted from the novel of the same name.) The low key smooth narration also adds to the sense of the inevitable, reminding that this is possibly what really happened (for the purposes of the fi;m) This gives the acting a weightier feel as if we're watching people caught in history on the screen.
Keep in mind that this is a very long movie, (160 minutes) and while there is some action, it's more a slow deliberate period piece focused on characterization far more than action. I wouldn't recommend watching unless you have some time set aside and feel relaxed enough to absorb it. (Personally I didn't even realize the length when I first watched it as the story quickly grabbed my attention) Director Andrew Dominik seems to take his time intentionally as if trying to prolong our visit to a time that's been forgotten for a long time now, but is still relevant today. The cinematography is breathtaking, contrasting the harshness of the old west with careful attention to character movement. We can tell who's lying the same way Jesse James can, by watching their tics as he questions them.
In an inspired choice, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a delicately somber soundtrack. I can't think of anyone better given Cave's affection for outlaws and murder ballads. He even shows up for a cameo, after the shooting, singing the song that summed up public opinion of Robert Ford
Every supporting character is superb as well. Sam Shephard's Frank James is the perfect foil for Jesse, distanced and practical as Jesse is hot headed and emotional. Frank can't wait to disband the gang, planning to sell shoes somewhere in peace and quiet. Sam Rockwell is Bob's brother Charlie, the only character supporting Bob for most of the movie. Knowing Bob's admiration for Jesse, he continually talks up his brother as perfect for upcoming jobs. After some particularly lavish praise, Jesse looks at Charlie and says, "You forget, I've met Bob."
After several interactions convince Bob that Jesse James will never be impressed with him, Bob decides he'll get his fame and fortune another way by turning Jesse in for the reward money. Watching him at a party where he's set to meet the Governor to discuss terms, you get a feel for his ambitions. Although the arrangement is not supposed to be public, Bob can't help but sneak into the party, trying to be seen among the important people. The Governor dresses him down for this and of course Bob turns meek and bashful again, but still decides to go through with it.
Eventually Bob and Charlie are all that's left of the gang. They go to live with Jesse while planning a bank job. Jesse is suspicious of everyone at this point and both brothers know he may kill them suspecting a plot against himself. Bob tells Charlie about his arrangement with the governor to kill Jesse James. Charlie responds, "But, he's our friend." That's Charlie, loyal to a fault, to both Jessie and his brother. Unfortunately if you know the story or read the title, you know he only gets to keep one of them. Of course the atmosphere is almost unbearable for Bob and Charlie. Jesse's behavior becomes more erratic daily. They don't know if Jesse needs their help, plans to kill them or both.
The scene where Bob shoots Jesse James is played wonderfully and James almost seems to be inviting Bob to do what he came to do. He announces his taking off his gun belt (so the neighbors don't see his guns in the window) lays them carefully down and walks across the room to get up on a chair to dust a picture high on the wall that doesn't really look dusty, all while knowing that Bob has a gun (that Jesse had just given him as a gift) We're shown the reflection of Bob raising the gun and aiming in the glass of the picture. Jesse James doesn't seem at all surprised and doesn't even move, as if he expected it to happen. Afterwards Jesse's wife Zee comes into the room screaming and sobbing. Bob just sits on the couch as if exhausted, unaffected by Jesse's wife and kids' turmoil, even swearing to Zee with gun in hand that he didn't do it.
Bob immediately tries to play up his celebrity, staging reenactments of the shooting for audiences every night. Charlie acts out Jesse's part and this soon takes it's toll on him. Bob is called a coward everywhere he goes and ends up as despised as Jesse James was admired. Even in death people love Jesse James, paying to see his corpse, which is travelling around the country, or even paying for pictures of it. Clearly Bob hasn't arrived at great things, his betrayal has only cemented the legend. He imagines visiting the surviving relatives of James' victims and announcing himself, still desperate to be as big as James was. He thought that the man who shot Jesse James would be a hero and on paper he would've been right. Bob Ford was on the side of the law after all. The Jesse James/Bob Ford story tells us that being a "hero" or not, has less to do with the moral code, than the qualities we admire (or dislike in Bob's case) in a man. Speaking to a girlfriend of the incident long afterwards Bob says. "I thought there'd be applause."
He just forgot that the public loved Jesse James. Jesse James (in their minds) had strength and courage and heart, all of which were seriously lacking in Bob. The people felt the betrayal so acutely (his shows probably helped with that) that he may as well have betrayed them. Eventually it catches up with Bob, although his death is not mourned by anyone. (I should also add that Jesse James was quickly adopted by film. Over fifty movies have featured him starting as early as 1921. His influence refuses to go away.)