Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Written at the time of the film's release with a 2016 post-script

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

Poor Jesse had a wife to mourn for his life,
Three children, they were brave;
But the dirty little coward
that shot Mr. Howard*
Has laid Jesse James in his grave

That's from the old song "The Ballad of Jesse James" which I remember from my youth, forever enshrining James and the "dirty little coward" Robert Ford in my memory. It was written by one Billy Gashade (who took pains to include himself in the lyrics, naturally) soon after the outlaw's death. As with so much in the Jesse James business, it is reflective of the myth of Jesse James rather than the reality. 

For instance (as the Ford character points out in the movie) Jesse only had two kids. 
The fact behind the myth was that Jesse James was a vicious little punk—racist, paranoid, just as capable of killing friends as enemies, and women and children in the bargain. And while it's true he did rob from the rich—his target was banks and trains (or Union veterans)—the legend that he gave to the poor only extended to himself and members of his gang. 
Besides, you rob from the rich because that's where the money is.

No one who sees Jesse James as a folk-hero, or seeks to profit from that image, mentions the mutilations he would perform on his victims. It kinda gets in the way of the "fun." Yet, folks in Missouri still talk of the history of Jesse James (I once stayed in a hotel that advertised he slept there), and there's even a feud going on about whether Jesse really did die, and there are folks who want to dig him up to check DNA evidence to claim family affiliation. The myth rolls on. The lies that were sold in the pulp-magazines during his life are still at work, and as the line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes: "This is the West, sir. If the Legend becomes Fact, print the Legend." Even if it is a god-damned lie and the guy was a scum-bag.
It is the yin and yang of truth and fiction that suffuses The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but then it did in reality, too. The conceit of the film (and the book by Ron Hansen on which it is based) is that Robert Ford was a product of a pulp-western inspired hero-worship, that Jesse had his eye on the stories, too, and their mutual attraction and loathing of the truth behind it was the music to the dance of death they engaged in. Robert Ford was a nobody, and, in the film's words "Jesse James stood as tall as a tree." And that set up a love-hate relationship with the unstable hoodlum. "I can't figger it out," says Brad Pitt's Jesse to Casey Affleck's Bob Ford. "Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanne be me?" 
In the film, Ford doesn't know himself and the answer changes depending on his fortunes...and his fears. But as the cliche goes there's only room for one of them, and if there's no doubt that the strong will prevail, there is some question which one that would be. Maybe it will merely be a case of who is the least weak. Ironically, both will go on to greater fame and infamy.
Andrew Dominick's film meanders between an informative narration** spoken over landscapes beneath time-lapsed speeding clouds, as if Nature is careening to a foregone conclusion, while the figures take their own sweet time getting there. Dominick has a formalism going with those fleeting clouds and shots that are framed by a time-distancing diffusion. But it's very inconsistent, and rendered meaningless--no doubt due to post-production cutting by Producer Ridley Scott and star Pitt to punch up the pace. 
If it's not all Dominick wanted it to be, at least there remains some terrific performances all-around. Pitt is at his enigmatic best here, an unreadable half-smile on his face in all occasions. Sam Rockwell as Ford's older brother and fellow gang member gives another off-kilter performance that is spot-on. Along the way there are terrific cameos by Sam Shepard, Michael Parks and Ted Levine (and one distracting one by James Carville), but the stand-out is Casey Affleck. Affleck is every insecure, withdrawn kid who talks big, with a defensive smile on his face, and eyes that roll protectively up into his head when challenged. He's a train-wreck waiting to happen. And Jesse James specialized at trains.
If you're of a patient frame of mind, and have a taste for an unromantic West with heavy-handed irony then The Assassination of Jesse James is for you. But if not, it's a rental.
Narration: He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as "granulated eyelids" and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.

The view from 2016: 

I was writing less and faster when I did this and there are some things that are remiss. In hindsight, I should mention it's an early film, not only of Sam Rockwell, but a pre-fame Jeremy Renner, the wonderful Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt, as well as brief cameos by Nick Cave and Zooey Deschanel.
But, I think the biggest sin here is there isn't even a mention of Roger Deakins, who did the cinematography. One thing that DOES stand out about The Assassination of Jesse James, besides its rather astringent presentation—narration over tableau/scene/narration over tableau—is the beautiful imagery Deakins pulls out of his camera, to the point where it's almost trying to create myth in its own manner, by the sheer beauty and care of the images, some even diffused at the edges to give it a "magic camera" feel. 
Deakins, the go-to cameraman for the Coen Brothers, Sam Mendes, and so many others, knows that the images will become as communicative as the narration in those tableaux and he has a great ally in Dominick (who is also a cinematographer, working with Terrence Malick on The New World) in achieving amazing images throughout the film, but none more so than when the world is still and actors are not having to hit marks.
Narratively, the film is still a bit of a mess, but a second look recently struck me how beautiful the thing looks. It truly one of the best examples of Deakins' work in a storied career.

* "Thomas Howard" was the alias Jesse James was using at the time of his death.

** The narration has its own problems. One is not too sure of its reliability. For instance, in describing Jesse it states that he had "granulated eye-lids" which caused him to blink excessively, though part of Brad Pitt's performance is a protracted concentration, where he stares but does not blink. Then, the narration goes all flowery on the subject "...caused him to blink as if the world was too big to take in for too long." The film has its own problems with truth and myth.

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