I was hoping for a chance to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Forda second time before I wrote my review, but only to confirm my suspicions that it's a surprising near-masterpiece, certainly one of the year's best films, and the best Western to come across the range since Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man (1996). I had been looking forward to the film, mainly because 2007 had previously yielded two very good Westerns in Seraphim Falls and 3:10 to Yuma (we'll say nothing more about the wretched September Dawn). I had also admired New Zealand director Andrew Dominik's previous and only other feature, Chopper (2000). But none of this prepared me for the scope, artistry and brilliance of this new film.
The drawback is that the 160-minute The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is going to be one of those "difficult" movies that doesn't get the recognition it deserves, mainly because it can't be quickly explained or understood, or broken down into a 30-second sound byte. It's not a sweeping, spectacular epic, but rather a quiet, wintry epilogue. It will be critiqued with single words: "long," "boring," "confusing." Nevertheless, it's in good company with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Jane Campion's In the Cut, Gus Van Sant's Gerry, George A. Romero's Land of the Dead, Terrence Malick's The New World, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, Terry Zwigoff's Art School Confidential, Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, David Lynch's Inland Empire and William Friedkin's Bug -- all movies that will eventually have their day in the sun despite their current sad critical standing. The real hitch is that Jesse James chooses not to deconstruct the James myth, as would be the expected, rational approach in our post-modern age, but rather embraces it and expands on it.
Brad Pitt stars -- and deserves Oscar consideration -- as Jesse James at the tail end of the bandit's illustrious career. He's living with his wife and two kids under an assumed name, posing as a gentleman of means and respect. He pulls his last job, robbing a train, with the help of his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and a band of hired goons and half-wits. With the aid of cinematographer Roger Deakins, this opening sequence already astonishes with its unique use of light and darkness among the slender, splintery trees. (The landscape perfectly reflects the character's psychology throughout.) One of the goons is Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), brother of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who is one of the biggest fans James ever had. Bob has a shoebox full of James memorabilia, including all those fantastical dime novels full of exciting, shoot-em-up adventure tales. Bob somehow makes an impression on the mysterious Jesse; he's invited to stay with the family for a few days. James further fuels Bob's fantasies by neither confirming nor denying all those tales, and doing mystifying things like chopping off the heads of live snakes.
From there the movie turns into a kind of chess game, in which the gang separates and the members each ride through the snow and countryside to get to one another, presumably to get the upper hand on one another. It's a bit complex and a tad confusing, but this is where Dominik's film shows its brilliance. Jesse may have been the nation's first great celebrity -- the narration makes it known that more people could identify him than the president -- and he plays into this power with ultimate mastery. James can sit across a table from a man and watch the man watching him, and seem to know exactly what's going on. Pitt couldn't be more perfect for the role; he has a way of licking his lips that lets us know he's in control and that he savors that control. Even when characters appear apart from James, they're under his gaze. If nobody else, including the audience, fully understands the setup, James certainly does.
When it comes time for the assassination of the title, the movie does it by the book: Bob Ford shoots Jesse in the back, in his own home, with a gun given to Bob by Jesse, while Jesse is balanced on a ladder straightening a picture. The movie sets it up as if James has choreographed the entire scene, like Obi-Wan Kenobi allowing himself to be cut down by Darth Vader because the repercussions will be far greater than the moment itself. The film winds down with an extended epilogue showing the remainder of Ford's life, his infamy and folly, and including a vicious, real ballad sung by Nick Cave. I can't think of a better Ford than Casey Affleck; he has a smart, weasel-like quality, but he also serves as the movie's unexpected protagonist. He's closer to any of us than James will ever be. He deserves to share company with John Carradine, who played the character in Jesse James (1939) and Fritz Lang's sequel The Return of Frank James (1940), and he surpasses the slightly clueless, iron-jawed John Ireland in Samuel Fuller'sI Shot Jesse James(1949).
Going back to that narration, an actor named Hugh Ross reads it, and although most "real" filmmakers sneer at narration, this film uses it well. Not only does Ross read it with a sense of history and awe, but the narration also provides relevant information as to the approximate status of Jesse James' celebrity that the events in the film could only hint at. (A photograph of the dead James sold like candy in every general store on both sides of the Mississippi.) If I had seen the film a second time, I certainly would have written down some of the choice dialogue, which is spoken by the characters in clever and polite tones, feeling out the words like smooth stones in a river. It's dialogue so rich that Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges surely would have applauded it. (Dominik wrote the screenplay, based on Ron Hansen's 1983 book.) One scene in which James Gang member Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) seduces the young wife of his partner's father ought to be studied and emulated by anyone who wishes a career in the seductive arts.Finally, we come down to Dominik's direction. In taking on the Jesse James story, he walks in the footsteps of masters like Lang, Fuller and Nicholas Ray, not to mention Philip Kaufman and Walter Hill, but he honors them all. Chopper didn't reveal any particularly notable skill or talent, but here he approaches stylists like Malick and Lynch, spreading out his story across a wide canvas and taking his time with every detail. If James needs to spend a full minute sizing up an opponent, Dominik provides him that minute, uninterrupted and uncut. Pitt sinks his teeth into the part, perhaps understanding this power as only a modern-day celebrity can. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is by turns slippery, elusive, confusing and overpowering, exactly like the modern-day fame culture it mirrors.