The Assassination of Jesse James
By the Coward Robert Ford [R]
As a film critic, you have a small arsenal of tools at your disposal – praise, scorn, mockery, irony, hyperbole, wit, wordplay, worship, and the occasional plea for clemency.
Sometimes, the only appropriate tool is blunt honesty. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a first-class masterpiece. It’s also slow, arty, ethereal, meditative and various other flavors of American box office poison. But those with strong cinematic livers will feast on director Andrew Dominik’s visionary epic of America’s most famous outlaw and the footnote that gunned him down.
From its instantaneously classic, lantern-lit depiction of the 1881 Blue Cut train robbery, the James Gang’s final hurrah, to the infamous April 1882 killing of the title, and then more after that (and what a splendid more after that), Assassination depicts the intertwining tragedies of two men whose cups run over with iniquity.
James (Brad Pitt) here isn’t the flamboyant villain of childhood stories. He’s a criminal careerist, perched on middle age with his best days behind him, with little to do but play out the string. While still powerful, violent and “gregarious,” the end is closing in, and he slowly comes to the realization that criminality doesn ‘t offer much of a retirement plan beyond paranoia, guilt and regret.
These lessons are not known yet to Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), a wiry youngster with a soft way, an idiot grin and surprisingly cold veins when the shooting starts. Yet there’s a lot about James that Ford doesn’t know, despite being a self-appointed expert. Ford grew up reading nickel-novels about the exploits of the American Robin Hood, coming to idolize in a bizarre stalker sort of way. “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” James asks his young admirer.
Ford enters the James circle during the Blue Cut robbery it handles its tale of violence, fame and celebrity worship with a novel’s depth and delicacy. Aside from its two outstanding lead performances, it also boasts enough outstanding supporting performances (Paul Schneider as charismatic outlaw Dick Liddell, Sam Rockwell as dim brother Charlie Ford, Jeremy Renner as frustrated James cousin Wood Hite) to fill several films of unusual length.
Admirers have already labeled Assassination “the last great film of the seventies,” a reminder of a time when films felt liberating and challenging, and when Westerns took a turn to the elegiac. It refers to enough movies of the era to be a museum exhibit – Badlands, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, among them. Its biggest debt visually and musically (in the form of its hypnotic soundtrack) is owed to Terrence Malick’s wheatland pastoral Days of Heaven. Yet a film not mentioned is Lawrence of Arabia – in its novelistic richness, in its haywire destinies, and trading the boundless desert landscapes for the snowbound winter of the Plains. The film is as much an epic as a Western.
I’ve been accused by friends of preferring virtuosity to solidness, more interested in the flawed masterpiece than the superbly craftmanlike standard issue. Guilty, I suppose. Assassination certainly has an unbelievable store of virtuosity. Watching it for a second time, I found myself wondering about all of its brief brilliances you notice. (For instance, during a deadly midnight ride, how did Dominik get the light to glance gently off the butt of a shotgun?)
Yet while certainly different, this film is not as experimental and complex as its reputation suggests. The story is straightforward, the themes well trodden. What distinguishes it is not the concept but the execution. And while misguided critics have called for “chopping it down,” there’s nothing that would justify such madness beyond established run-time orthodoxy. Some people would have us watch movies with stopwatches.