I watched this movie with growing horror.
Just imagine kicking back on a Tuesday evening, tuning out of the Laker blowout to watch a nice Brad Pitt flick, only to find I’d tuned into, well, I’d write what’s what but I can only lie on the floor in the aftermath of this film and look at the ceiling, the light going out of my eyes before I can find the right words…
From the DVD cover: "Everyone in 1880s America knows about Jesse James. He’s the nation’s most notorious criminal, hunted by the law in 10 states. He’s also the land’s greatest hero., lauded as a Robin Hood by the public. Robert Ford? No one knows him. Not yet. But the ambitious 19-year-old aims to change that. He’ll befriend Jesse, ride with his gang. And if that doesn’t bring Ford fame, he’ll find a deadlier way."
Robert Ford: [to Frank James] 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 was hoping I could show you how special I am. I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr. James. I’ve got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset, but give me a chance and I’ll get the job done- I can guarantee you that.
Frank James: You’re not so special, Mr. Ford. You’re just like any other tyro who’s prinked himself up for an escapade, hoping to be a gunslinger like them nickel books are about. You may as well quench your mind of it, because you don’t have the ingredients, son.
Robert Ford: Well, I’m sorry to hear you feel that way, as I put such stock in your opinion. As for me being a gunslinger, I’ve just got this one granddaddy Paterson Colt and a borrowed belt to stick it in. But I also got an appetite for greater things. I hoped by joining up with you, it’d put me that much closer to getting them.
Frank James: Well, what am I supposed to say to that?
Robert Ford: Let me be your sidekick tonight.
Frank James: Sidekick?
Robert Ford: So you can examine my grit and intelligence.
Frank James: I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies. Now I don’t believe I want you anywhere within earshot this evening, okay? You understand?
Robert Ford: Well, I’m sorry…
Frank James: Why don’t you just get, now? Scat!
Jesse James: [Bob walks in on Jesse in the bath] Go away.
Robert Ford: Used to be nobody could sneak up on Jesse James.
Jesse James: Now you think otherwise?
Robert Ford: I ain’t never seen you without your guns, neither.
[Jesse removes a towel, revealing his gun]
Jesse James: [pause] Can’t figure it out: do you want to be like me or do you want to BE me?
Robert Ford: [defeated] I’m just making fun is all.
Jesse James: Give me some more conversations, Bob.
Charley Ford: I got one. This one’s about as crackerjack.
Jesse James: Let Bob tell it.
Robert Ford: I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
Charley Ford: About how much you and Jesse have in common.
Jesse James: Go on, Bob.
Charley Ford: Tell a story.
Robert Ford: Nope. Nope.
Charley Ford: Entertain Jesse. He’s here.
Robert Ford: Well, if you’ll pardon my saying so, I guess it is interesting, the many ways you and I overlap and whatnot. 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; between Frank and you was a brother, Robert, also with six letters. Robert is my Christian name. 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 lost some curiosities over the years.
Jesse James: [stares at Bob for a long time, smiles] Ain’t he something?
Narrator: He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case- that he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary. Even as he circulated his saloon he knew that the smiles disappeared when he passed by. He received so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. He kept to his apartment all day, flipping over playing cards, looking at his destiny in every King and Jack. Edward O’Kelly came up from Bachelor at one P.M. on the 8th. He had no grand scheme. No strategy. No agreement with higher authorities. Nothing but a vague longing for glory, and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford. Edward O’Kelly would be ordered to serve a life sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary for second degree murder. Over seven thousand signatures would eventually be gathered in a petition asking for O’Kelly’s release, and in 1902, Governor James B. Ullman would pardon the man. There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a deliberately paced, stunningly visualized, and emotionally charged exploration of the early development of mass media celebrity in America. The film riveted my attention for two hours and 40 minutes, and has remained on my mind for several days after my viewing. Although centered on one of the iconic legends of the Old West, it is far beyond an updated reincarnation of the Western. It is an epic allegory about the development of the American cult of celebrity and the effects of this obsession on the individuals caught in its web.
Visually, the film soars beyond anything that has hit the screen since Conrad Hall’s final masterpiece with Road to Perdition. Roger Deakins, the cinematography genius behind The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, and all the Cohen brothers" films since The Hudsucker Proxy, surpasses his best work. He pulls out all the stops here—intricately orchestrated changes in focus, richly textured colors, dazzling use of light sources, careful manipulations of time, powerfully significant fade-ins and fade-outs, and shots through rain, snow, and rippled old glass—to communicate the story. Deakins’ contribution stands out in the railroad train robbery sequence at the beginning of the film. Clearly defined, flickering light sources and deep black shadows create a dazzling, nightmarish vision that haunts the rest of the film. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
The richly textured, historically precise visual aspects of the film bring to mind Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. However, instead of the understated, "realistic" performances featured in those films, The Assassination of Jesse James…showcases powerful, yet still realistic performances by an outstanding ensemble cast.
Sam Rockwell, as the not-too-bright but well-meaning Charley Ford, and Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse’s loving wife, stand out. Yet the film belongs to the two titular leads, both of whom deliver the performances of their careers and create characters filled with disturbing contradictions. Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is alternately pitiable and terrifying—an affectionate, loving father, an old-before-his-time sage, an adventurous daredevil, an unrepentant bad boy, and a vicious sociopath. Casey Affleck’s Robin Ford is a complex, repellent, and tragic character who challenges the audience’s complicity in the undercurrents of the film.