Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Film #159: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The passage of time, and of eras, overwhelms the film's first frames as cinematographer Roger Deakins aims his camera into the ether, capturing time-lapsed storm clouds speeding through the Missouri skies, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ tick-tocky score sounding out like mournful timepieces ringing out the end of one hour and the beginning of another. We first see Brad Pitt’s Jesse James as a pensive, well-loved 34-year-old family man fervently contemplating his humanity and his concomitant mortality. The eloquent narration–some of the best ever written for a film–begins by illustrating Jesse’s foibles, normalcies, lies, physical flaws, and almost superhuman charisma. Actor/filmmaker Hugh Ross is the unseen narrator, who speaks in third-person as if he were dissecting this tale’s movements with scientific fervor; his serious, folksy voice is perhaps the most important in the movie, because it’s the authoritative reresentative of human history–the same history that will ensnare and mangle the lives of our two title characters, and of all others who near them.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik, working from Ron Hansen’s novel, laboriously crafts the language of this narration, making it feel like it was cribbed from an 1882 St. Louis newspaper. Even the film’s title–The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–reads like a bold headline over a story one might’ve consumed the day following Ford’s notorious bullet. This use of antiquated speech, inspired by Hansen’s work, is one of many tricks that the determined Dominik employs as a time-travel devise in this masterful period piece. Often, experiencing this picture’s sights and sounds feels like being hypnotized and transported directly into the heel of the 19th Century.

Having let us know, immediately, that this is going to be no ordinary shoot-’em-up (something that must’ve been a disappointment to Warner Brothers, who treated this complex film with shoddy bewilderment upon its 2007 release; it was a notorious and heartbreaking box office flop), Dominik quickly makes a tonal shift into the first dialogue scene, with king-of-the-court Jesse in good humor and communing with his still Confederate-loyal gang hours before what will be their final train robbery. It’s here, via boyish joviality, that we immediately get familiar with many of the story’s main players: the affable Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell); big talkin’ lover-man bandit Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider); poor and simple Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt); and Jesse’s cousin, the quietly proud but hair-trigger Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner). Things are kept light…and then Robert Ford shows up. In a dark coat and a tattered, stunted stovepipe hat, Casey Affleck immediately captures our attention with his low-self-esteem shambling (Affleck’s idiosyncratic performance seems slightly influenced by Timothy Carey–something about those lidded eyes and that slightly slurred speech). Sucking the air out of the very forest, Ford puts on an uncertain smile and kneels down to join the boys, but–as it seems to have been for his entire life–the timing is all wrong. Just as he takes a seat, chowtime is called and the James gang goes running, leaving him by lonesome once again. This cloudy outsider desperately wants in.

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Bob Ford decides to escape this scene and approach Frank James (Sam Shepard) for some validation. Bad idea. Here, we get more fully introduced to the way Ford carries himself. As he does throughout the film, in a performance of immense grace and empathy, Affleck employs a dazzling array of facial pyrotechnics–toothy smiles, tired and begging eyes, a nearly trembling chin, contrite glances downwards, humiliated glances sideways–in his first unsure attempt to sell himself (and Ford is ALWAYS trying to sell himself in this movie–that’s something that makes this story contemporary, since most of us are trying to sell ourselves to someone these days). This first monologue is key (we should remember: it’s given to Frank James, whom Bob respects but doesn’t hold in high regard as he does Jesse):

Bob: I was lyin’ when I said I just happened down here. I been lookin’ for you. I feel lousy I didn’t say so at the outset. (pause) Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make, whereas I’ve always thought of myself as being just a rung down from the James Brothers. And I was hoping if I ran into you aside from those peckerwoods, I could show you how truly special I am. (no response from Frank, who lights a cigar). I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James. I’ve got qualities that don’t come shinin' through right at the outset, but give me a chance and I’ll get the job done. I can guarantee you that. 

Frank James is, however, way past this manner of life, and is in no mood to hear talk of further exploits, and so he shuffles Bob Ford off with an assertive flash of his gun. But here we see that Bob Ford–who with his first line admits he’s a liar–is the much more unstable person. Through Affleck’s performance and Dominik’s authentic dialogue, we can sense Ford’s foot-stamping rage as he tries to be polite and brush off this rejection from someone he feels stole some of Jesse’s limelight. And, as we will see, Bob Ford is VERY protective over his OWN gilded image of Jesse James.

Dominik intercuts this intense scene with a revisit with the rest of the gang, whose characters become more defined as they talk about their exploits with women (and women are rarely seen in this film, although they do have a fleeting presence, not surprisingly as busy housewives or wide-eyed ingenues). Here, we sense the power of a couple more performances–the sad sugar of Dillahunt’s Miller, and the boss sassiness of Schneider’s Dick Liddil, who schools these guys on what words will and will not work on women. Obviously a devotee of poetry, Liddil understands the power of words, and this is among his weapons–it sets him a level above his ill-educated compatriots, at the very least. This scene provides the transition into Robert Ford’s first meeting with his idol. But Jesse’s see-through-you friendliness puts the flakey Bob off-guard, and leaves him feeling disappointed in Jesse’s lack of seriousness over what Bob sees as a valuable opportunity for him to buy into Bob’s sharp-shooting loyalty.

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The robbery at Blue Cut is a showpiece for Deakins’ cinematography (and that’s saying something for a movie shot as impeccably as this one; this is certainly some of Deakins’ most notable work, in a career filled with masterstrokes). Here, as the narrator chimes in again, we get a fuller blush at the film’s visual splendor. We start to take more notice of the camera’s radically blurred lenses, superbly ground to create the feel of looking through hand-blown glass or, maybe, a crystal ball. We see Jesse, tinted by yellowed lantern light, listening to the tracks for activity, and–in an unusual camera move which results in such darkness as to require the viewer to momentarily lean on sound alone–we eventually catch the train emerging out of that inky blackness, its passing headlight refracting psychedelically through the reedy trees amongst which the James Gang lie in wait. Then we catch a towering glimpse of Frank James as the stone through which this steam-spitting locomotive cannot pass. The raiding of the train is memorable not for its brutality, but for its lack of it; while gathering what little loot they can, Ed Miller nervously warns Jesse against killing a meek clerk standing guard over the train’s questionable riches. Here, we get the first glimpse into Jesse’s murderous eyes, and into the notion that maybe something is afoul in this group–something beyond Robert Ford’s vampiric energy. As time further encroaches on the film through its memorably needling score, Jesse and Frank don’t even have to have words after the robbery. They know it’s all over.

But then there is Bob Ford, who shows up to energize Jesse again. For him, at this moment, and often throughout the movie, Bob is a window into the strange fame and adulation he’s achieved, and so Jesse is glad to have him around, for he has not much amusement to hang his hat on at this stage. It’s at this moment, too, that Bob Ford begins to recognize Jesse as someone who might spot his worth. I love the scene where Jesse and Bob smoke cigars on a porch, and Bob lets Jesse in on his fandom. This is where some of the movie’s present-day relevancy comes into play, as it feels like Brad Pitt is now playing a version of himself, having to listen to a slightly scary acolyte’s rapturous praise while trying to hold onto a self-image he can recognize. Meanwhile, Affleck has Bob come across as a kid who takes a wobbly joy in this opportunity, and then quickly realizes he’s playing at a risky game of barely comprehensible hugeness. It’s great how this scene begins, with Bob in little-child mode, bouncing between nervous near-tears and breathless adulation, regaling Jesse with how bad his day began and how well it’s ended, and Jesse calmly remarking “Yeah, it’s a wonderful world.” Just as brilliant is how the scene ends, with Ford revealing his disdain for Frank (a “nothing,” he slips); Jesse is obviously wounded by this, and here the air goes out of Bob Ford’s performance, especially when Jesse tells him those dime novels he takes such stock in are all lies. At this moment, which he typically tries to shrug off, Ford seems to take up residence on another, even more melancholy planet. This is a movie about the perils hidden in being famous, and in adoring the famous too much.

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It doesn’t get much better for Bob the next morning, when Jesse chooses him as his footman while demonstrating his willingness to kill enemies by beheading a pair of snakes. Here we get the sense that Ford finally knows he’s been idolizing an unforgiving killer. Even so, all this “sounds like an adventure” to him, and taking the job is definitely a transient way for him to look better than the rest of the gang (even though Wood and Charley end up mocking Bob, as always; this movie, in another display of present-day relevance, touches on those revenge fantasies that many of the bullied have often, and still do now, turn into realities). The narration that follows keys us into another of the film’s themes: the intermingling of the hunter and the hunted:

Narrator: They moved to 1017 Troost Avenue at night so that the neighborhood couldn’t get a good look at them or their belongings. And then Bob thought Jesse would give him eight hours of sleep and a daydreaming goodbye. But with a second day in the Thomas Howard house, Bob thought he might never go, but might be brought in as a good-natured cousin to the boy and a gentleman helper to Zee. He went everywhere with Jesse. They made trips to the Topeka Exchange Saloon, where Jesse could spend nearly sixty minutes sipping one glass of beer and still complain about feeling tipsy. Bob would rarely vouchsafe his opinions as they talked. If spoken to, he would fidget and grin. If Jesse palavered with another person, Bob secretaried their dialogue, getting every gesture, reading every inflection and tic, as if he wanted to compose a biography of the outlaw, or as if he were preparing an impersonation. 

After Bob is sent away by an increasingly creeped-out Jesse, we get into the film’s mesmerizing second act, detailing the machinations that set the barely-regarded Robert Ford swirling into a tornado of destined events that’ll send him crashing into the “Thomas Howard house” almost seven months later, with Jesse at the end of his gun. Dick Liddil’s copious feel for female flesh–at first a plot element that seems superfluous–ends up being the lit match that melts the tar holding Jesse’s gang together. It spurs Wood Hite to seek revenge against Liddil (for diddling his elderly father’s young wife, played with a saucy impertinence by Alison Elliott). This sets Bob Ford against Hite, whom he dispatches in a steady but lucky shot (probably more inspired by Hite‘s mockery of Ford, and his closeness to Jesse, than by Liddil’s well-being); and this sets Bob and Charley finally in the same camp, bound by blood to protect each other, despite all the years Charley has spent ribbing Bob for his gaga droolings over the James itinerary.

All this intrigue comes amidst rumors that Liddel and Ed Miller are planning to backstab Jesse (this leads to an excellent scene with Bob Ford taking a bath out in a meadow, and Liddil threatening him with a pistol shot if he ever lets on anything he knows; Schneider, a veteran of David Gordon Green’s All The Real Girls and, later, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, is really splendid here with his honeyed phraseology and sly vocals). Jesse, however, seems to know all that’s going to happen before it does and so it’s no surprise he’s onto the virtually translucent Ed Miller, whom he visits in an extremely tense scene that highlights Dillahunt’s stammering yokel as a grim figure submerged over his head. Dillahunt had an extremely good year in 2007, appearing in both this and Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men. Unlike that film appearance, he brilliantly cuts a pale and underfed profile here–one painfully blue, unloved and discarded.

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Eventually, Jesse is compelled to visit the Ford brothers, ostensibly to ask them to help him case another bank, but really to see if there are any fissures in their loyalty. This leads to another of the film’s most quietly explosive scenes, with Sam Rockwell’s boisterous Charley at the family dinner table, trying mightily to distract Jesse’s sense of something amiss by making Bob the butt of jokes. But Bob turns things around for himself, and for the on-edge family: through this exchange, he both reignites Jesse’s inexplicably prescient fascination with him and, with a subsequent tantrum, underscores his own strong scent of disloyalty:

Jesse: Give me some more conversations, Bob.
Charley: I got one. (laughing hard) This one’s ’bout as crackerjack as the one–
Jesse: Let Bob tell it.
Bob: (long pause) I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Charley: About how much you and Jesse have soooo much in common.
Jesse: Go on, Bob.
Charley: Yeah, come on, Bob. Tell us a story.
Bob: Nope. Nope.
Charley: C’mon, entertain Jesse. He’s here…c’mon
Bob: (long pause as his hems and then smiles) Well, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I guess it is interesting, the many ways you and I overlap and what not. I mean, you begin with our daddies. Your daddy was a pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church; my daddy was a pastor of a church at Excelsior Springs. Um. You’re the youngest of the three James boys; I’m the youngest of the five Ford boys. Between Charley and me, is another brother, Wilbur here, with six letters in his name; and between Frank and is another brother, Robert, also with six letters. And my Christian name is Robert, of course. You have blue eyes; I have blue eyes. You’re five feet eight inches tall. I’m five feet eight inches tall…Oh me, I must’ve had a list as long as your nightshirt when I was twelve, but I’ve seem to have lost some curiosities over the years. (the camera remains on Bob longer than it should; the smile drifts off his face).
Jesse: (after staring at Bob for a while, grinning) Ain’t he somethin’?

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By the time the government gets wind of Dick Liddil’s whereabouts, Robert Ford has enough animosity built up against Jesse that something has to give. Searching for any way he can finally become as notorious as his hero, Bob Ford–like many modern assassins–finally turns against his idol. With the collusion of some Missouri lawmen (Ted Levine and Tarantino favorite Michael Parks) and under the direction of Governor Crittenden (played by former Bill Clinton advisor James Carville, in a sharp, surprising cameo), he gets caught up in a false sense of importance. Even the government, who’s depending on Bob’s commitment to this manhunt, seem to belittle his abilities. They know they’re well past the scrapings and into the barrel. But they’re trying everything they can–even putting their trust in someone who may frankly be a madman. And Bob is extra willing to play along, especially if it can fill the hole inside himself, if only for a short while (“I’ve been a nobody all my life,” Ford tells Levine’s Sheriff Timberlake. “I was the baby–I was the one they made promises to they never kept. And ever since I can remember, Jesse James has been big as a tree.”)

Jesse, meanwhile, comes to a new appreciation of the Ford brothers, having forged a bond with Charley after asking him for and tentatively believing Charley’s version of the truth regarding Dick Liddil and Wood Hite. It’s Charley who seals his own and his brother’s fates, with the final selling of Robert Ford. And as Jesse has no other associates whom he can even remotely count on (none that are alive, at least), he relents in letting Bob back in the gang. But he does so because he’s already seen death approaching; while stalking fish under the ice of a frozen lake, he tells Charley “…one thing that’s for certain: you don’t mind dyin’ once you’ve peeked over the other side. You’d no more wanna go back to your body than you’d wanna spoon up your own puke.”

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True to its title, the film’s final act dramatizes James’ death, with a sweaty Robert Ford nervously ramping up to his deed, and Charley over in the corner, gut-sick with guilt and fear. But we get the most unguarded insight into Robert Ford’s persona after Jesse’s death–after we as an audience feel the loss of Brad Pitt’s glamour from the film (Pitt’s terrific throughout, especially when being menacing or playful, or both at the same time). Ironically, it’s while he’s making his living as a stage star, in hideous makeup and with wooden line readings, recreating his murder of a superstar criminal and folk hero night after night (with Charley portentously standing in as Jesse), that we are finally clued in to Bob’s secret feelings of shame and confusion (particularly in the scene where he bares his feelings to his understanding paramour, played gently and all too briefly by Zooey Deschanel). It’s in this section that Affleck’s Robert Ford becomes truly tragic–not just simply an accidental monster or a wayward goof, but a frightened, neglected man-child with delusions of glory and ill-gotten fame, a man who still respects Jesse James’ code of loyalty and who ultimately joins the rest of the world in seeing himself as a Judas enriched with only a few mollifying pieces of silver.

As director, Andrew Dominik showed promise with his debut film Chopper. But nothing he displayed there prepared me for seeing The Assassination of Jesse James on the big screen upon its release. The film’s glorious visage swallowed me up whole–it felt so monumental and yet so intimate. It’s a film that screams to be seen in clarity and enormity, even though Dominik is fond of using the 2:35 frame to box his characters in behind windows, through doorways, reflected in picture frames or mirrors, or simply in claustrophobic settings. Scenes in the Missouri countryside can be expansive, but mostly in transitional moments. Often, we feel somewhat trapped even when the camera’s under open skies. Deakins’ design of the color palette is realistic without being overly sepia, as many period pieces make the mistake of being these days; his blacks are particularly striking in both the robbery scene and also especially in Jesse’s ride with Ed Miller (where Jesse almost–but not quite–disappears into the darkness). But I’ll really never forget first drinking in all those shots filmed through altered lenses and blown glass; they add the eeriest feel, like we’re peering through a prism into another world. Dominick is doubly wise to have a costume designer (Patricia Norris) that doesn’t overdress an actor, and production designers (Ms. Norris and Richard Hoover) that don’t overdress a set–everything seems authentically spare when needed, and ornate when needed otherwise (as in the final half, which toys with the upper crust).

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The natural and layered sound work (with that insanely great Cave/Ellis score) adds a further note of detail, and the editing, by Dylan Tichenor and Curtis Clayton, is measured and well-timed (some might consider Assassination slow, but I don’t). This 160 minute film went through some trying episodes in post-production, and Dominik says there’s still about 10 minutes he’d like to add back in, including a late-film sequence he calls “The Garden” which the director maintains is the film’s best scene (he was asked by Warner Brothers to trim Assassination after he delivered an even longer initial cut; we should consider ourselves lucky, though, because Warners was proposing a 102-minute massacre that would’ve gutted the movie).

As it is, with the last confident salvo of Hugh Ross’ narration (which is truly ravishing--some of film history's most stunning final words), the viewer is sent stumbling away, stultified, jolted by the film’s meticulous design, with Robert Ford’s dead stare frozen as a reminder that notoriety received without integrity is really best refused. And with that, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford makes its way into the top pantheon of western epics. Perhaps more accurately than any genre entries that preceded it, this movie sets us right square into that age where a certain violent strain of honor gulped its final, inextricable taste of air. It tells a yarn with as much resonance today as it had in 1882, and it does so with one of the finest film performances ever–Casey Affleck’s sorry, sorrowful, pitiful Robert Ford–working in tandem with Dominik’s uncommonly lyrical vision and fate-filled language. It's a movie unlike any other. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is now enjoying a huge revival, spearheaded by superfan Jamieson McGonigle. His efforts to reignite passion for this neglected masterpiece resulted in sold-out two screenings at The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York City (attended by director Dominick and author Hansen).  Happily, though, and with the director’s approval, McGonigle–who owns his own personal 35mm print of the film–is looking for other venues, in other cities, in which to bring this masterful movie to life on the big screen once again. If you’re interested in contacting him, here is the Facebook page for this devoted revival.  

NOTE: This article originally appeared as entry #12 in Wonders in the Dark's overview of cinema's 60 greatest westerns.  

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