DVD of the Week – Review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

by TOM NIXON

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I was originally wary of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, its title and premise indicative of an increasingly pervasive tendency to make overt and digestible the lurking subtext of ’70s revisionist classics. Altman understood with McCabe and Mrs Miller the necessity of a less-is-more approach amidst an age of information overload; only absences speak magnitudes in a world where, to paraphrase a certain emblem of our era, here we’re allowed everything all of the time. You’ve got to revolve around tone and rhythm – it’s the only way to bring anything meaningful to the field outside of intellectual posturing. Fortunately, where Jesse James was concerned I needn’t have worried.

Jesse James contains magnitudes. We first see James (Brad Pitt) exuding confidence as he makes small talk with his fellows, then minutes later flames flicker across his relishing expression as a train approaches to be robbed. His silhouette stands tall in the train’s light; he is a Demigod, “big as a tree”, the great anti-hero from Robert Ford’s stash of comics. Ford (Casey Affleck) in stark contrast is all fidgety enthusiasm, less sympathetically earnest than creepily delusional, a fanboy desperately wanting his own place in Western folklore. It seems inexplicable that James would keep a bumbling wannabe such as Ford at his side, but this legend sees things normal men cannot see.

It soon becomes apparent that Jesse James is a cold blooded killer, is paranoid and borderline schizophrenic, is deeply unhappy. Like some deranged alien, Pitt’s usual eccentric charisma is honed into scary volatility, from manic threats to a shuffling portrait of glassy-eyed melancholy. Unhinged menace shows itself early on in a scene where he lauds the taste of snakes as they writhe in his hands, murmuring ominously “I give them names… Enemies… I give them the names of my enemies” before beheading them with a knife.

“It’s all lies, you know” says James about his supposed exploits, but this is a film that binds truth and representation in an uneasy unity; there are two truths and two images of Jesse James, and it soon becomes clear that his only peace will come from killing one to preserve the other. James is given to describing his plight in terms of outer body experiences, narrating a flashback in which he refers to himself in the third person, lines like “your body knows [what a star is], it’s your mind that forgot” speaking of inner disharmony. In a later scene where he shoots his own reflection in a lake he admits the allure of suicide; admits that after peeking across to the other side there’s no going back. “Ain’t no peace when Jesse’s around.”

Ford, too, is riddled with anxiety over the gulf between man and myth; his eventual murder of James is the last flailing grasp at a place in the mythology James the man has long left behind. Affleck’s performance is a magnificent exercise in gesture, he rocks back and forth smiling sickly like a delusional fanatic, awe and resentment and defiance and confusion all in one inarticulate mess of a gaze. A mesmerizing scene at the dinner table has Ford reluctantly list the ways in which he’s similar to James (both the runts of their respective families, etc.) as the latter looks on ambiguously; it’s clear that James has already seen his younger self’s anxieties, his mistakes in Ford. It’s clear too that James will ultimately use this self to orchestrate his own murder – to capture a harmony of identity he can’t otherwise access.

Whilst this plays out Dominik often switches focus to surprisingly well-rounded if stereotypical minor characters, his attention to trivial details a tried and tested technique of myth-making. There’s a sub-plot which culminates in Ford shooting James’ cousin, foreshadowing the assassination in the way Ford quietly struts around, proud of himself, and the way he becomes more haggard and haunted too. Dominik uses fairy-tale narration and a quietly nostalgic score accompanied between scenes by fast motion shots of clouds streaming over, rays of light flitting through windows and trees, all at odds with the narrator’s claim that time slows around Jesse James – like any legend he’s something more than human and something less.

When the assassination does come it’s brutal and painful, devoid of glory. It’s James who gives Ford the gun, gives him the shot; it’s James who goes down as legend. If Ford does get a taste of glory it’s in the aftermath, where he reconstructs the assassination over 800 times for live audiences. But he is increasingly accused of being a coward, and, once shamed, he is murdered by another man looking for some kind of glory or vengeance. Unlike James, Ford receives no eulogy. In that way it’s all about how the endless plight of humanity is to play out its mistakes over and over again, like James’ hypnotic stirring of his coffee, trains on tracks, cloud after cloud rushing by. Each time less glorious than the last.

There’s no irony in the way Dominik’s soaringly lush plains are idealizations of the Old West, languid dreamscapes infused with so much lyrical grace only a myth could contain them. It’s a way of re-imagining Altman’s revelation that the Old West and its heroes are dead, but remain as statues, specters, leering down at the new generation as it flounders in their shadow. Something like Terrence Malick doing a Lynch movie, Jesse James connects mythological pressures to an inextricable mixture of wild beauty and base decadence breeding a fundamental discordance; there’s real pained inevitability in the way these lovely images all yawn inexorably towards the grave, reflected in the unhinged mortality that glistens in James’ eyes, sustained yet haunted by his own great mythology. It may be that much like James the film assists in its own suicide, allowing the concluding scenes of Ford flaunting his hollow glory to fester in a way that feels anti-cinematic, that grates chillingly against the image of Pitt dragging about Hector’s corpse in Troy a few years prior.

In various guises the Western did well in 2007, a realization perhaps that these sweeping unforgiving vistas provide a timeless analogue to contemporary tensions; here there’s a deliciously meta theme concerning civilization and its media, its cinema, ripping to shreds celebrities of its own making. But Jesse James transcends the modern age in the way it pulls taut a long existential rope between where we’ve come from and where we’re going, riding off into the sunset with the sunrise on our backs. If there’s optimism, it’s in the way Dominik shows that there’s beauty bubbling inside this ritual dance of fathers and sons, memories and dreams, all the way to the abyss.

The Warner DVD is strangely lacking in features, but the film’s gorgeous rendering more than makes up for that.

New releases this week: Blindness, Frozen River, Miracle at St. Anna, Nights in Rodanthe, W.

One response to “DVD of the Week – Review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

  1. Bravo, Tom. An excellent, excellent review. You hit on many of the themes I was enamored with while also highlighting some perspectives I would never have realized. It seems all the stranger why this film didn’t receive more accolades from the critical press.

    “…Coward Robert Ford” as commentary on contemporary celebrity w/ Ford as delusional fanboy is a great comparison.

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