Director: Andrew Dominik
By Roderick Heath
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an extraordinarily intense study in the savage nature of fate, violence, and false mythology. It’s also a cinematic tone poem that deliberately alludes to that least-popular of genres, the revisionist Western, and in particular the films of Terence Malick, Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Robert Benton, and Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), to which it is a virtual sequel. Kaufman’s drowsy, drizzly work studied with moody anti-romanticism the final raid conducted by the James-Younger gang, now long notorious and hunted on all sides. Jesse James, as portrayed by Robert Duvall, was a quick-draw psycho still fighting the Civil War using bushwhacker rules. The film concluded with Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson) dead, the gang dispersed, and the James brothers fleeing south to Missouri to form a new crew.
Assassination examines James (Brad Pitt) in his last year, robbing a train with self-aggrandising style and self-serving violence. But he’s worn out, his nerves electric with paranoia and frustration. His gang, a feckless mob of self-appointed rebels, includes Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), a smooth-tongued, poetry-quoting skirt chaser; Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), a pug-nosed, Yankee-hating thug and Jesse’s cousin; Jesse’s hardened, cagey elder brother Frank (Sam Shepard); Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), a garrulous twit; and, new to the group, Charley’s younger brother Robert (Casey Affleck). A strange, drawling, pale misfit, Robert talks himself up as a man of bravery and character, despite coming across as mildly retarded and possibly crazy. Frank finds him “creepy” when he talks to Robert, and Jesse, trying out his practised charm on the 20-year-old, proves unable to fathom this tensely smiling enigma.
Slowly, as Assassination progresses, the impressions reverse. Robert, the youngest of four brothers, socially awkward, and quietly obsessed, is desperate to prove himself and live up to his dreams after a youth of dreary rural rituals and tough, strutting elder brothers who belittle and bully him. His hero worship of Jesse curdles into something like hate, beginning when the outlaw casually disavows the heroic portrayals of him that have proliferated in the popular media in the 15 years of his career, and gathering in intensity at displays of Jesse’s capricious cruelty and distrustfulness that confirm that anyone, even friends and companions, might be targets for his guns.
As the Victorian-marquee-style title suggests, Assassination has removed narrative almost entirely from the story and left a series of confrontations that simultaneously reveal and conceal motivation and character as the question of the film becomes, when, how, and why. The film gathers the deterministic momentum of Greek tragedy played out in its characters’ eyes, principally the war between Pitt’s corrosive blue irises and Affleck’s infinitely obfuscating gaze. Jesse is alternately brooding and brutal, charming and gregarious, a manic-depressive warrior who is astounded and sorrowful over his own capacity for hair-trigger violence. He is torn asunder by the need to be with people made more intense by the need to have trustworthy lieutenants and the fear that those he trusts may betray or ruin him through stupidity or clumsiness. He shoots a member of the gang, Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), on the mere suspicion he might have ratted him out and slaps silly an adolescent cousin of the Fords’, precipitating Robert’s gathering determination to destroy Jesse.
The nature of Jesse and Ford’s psychic pas de deux is compelling as each man—and we—attempt to discern what is being communicated. Is James sure Ford is set to betray him? Robert makes contact with a Pinkerton agent connected to the state authorities. The agent assures Robert James will find out, but Jesse never lets on. Does he know—even want—this bullet in the back? Is he trying to precipitate a death that will come on his own terms? Or does his intuition fail him? Can he really not decide if Robert will betray him?
An irony resolves out of the title; it is precisely Robert’s lack of cowardice that presents him an opportunity to take out the outlaw. Jesse’s merciless gaze unnerves everyone around him to the point where he can tell swiftly if they’re lying or not, but not Robert—or Charley. But Charley has no real character. He can lie to Jesse, but he can’t actually do anything for himself.
The baleful, recriminatory regard Frank James has for his brother a rhyme in the two Ford brothers. In the film’s one moment of gunplay, a fight erupts in the Fords’ farmhouse, as Wood tries to shoot Liddil for bedding the wife of his uncle Major Hite (Tom Aldredge)—a ridiculous effort to defend family honour, as the wife, Sarah (Kailin See), is a young, fire-under-snow opportunist married to a withered old man. Robert shows for the first time his capacity for cool violence when he plugs Wood in the head to save the more likable Liddil. The killing adds another reason to the mounting list for the Fords to be wary of James and establishes Robert’s oddly dissociative ability to shoot a man from behind.
Andrew Dominik made his directorial debut with Chopper (2000), a picture based on the mostly spurious memoirs of an Australian thug. That film made Eric Bana a movie star and joined an interesting run of gangland films like Essex Boys (2000) and Sexy Beast (2000) in studying the terror of being up close to a dangerous criminal. Assassination continues this theme, as Jesse is certainly that, and his somsersaulting moods and general paranoia make him intolerable. Yet Jesse is also a gentleman, a charismatic leader, and undoubtedly brave. He stands for something—the living ghost of Southern rebellion—and lives too vividly in the zeitgeist to be just another gunman to be eradicated. Jesse is struggling to hold onto his threads of humanity—his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and kids, his final friends—even as he is pushed by forces within himself and without to destroy. There is the hint that for Jesse, death is an extirpation of his sins and the reclamation of his humanity from a history of bloodshed. In an arresting sequence, the gang robs a train at Blue Ridge, and Jesse awaits the approaching train standing atop a block. It’s a wry take on James’ self-promotional style, but also evokes the nature of his heroic appeal to the bitter and betrayed post-Civil War populace as a single man willing to stand before the oncoming industrial juggernaut of progress.
Ford longs to be James and possibly have his body, as a charged bath scene suggests that each views the other is a completion of himself. Ford feels that James has indelible place in the world, with his family, his fame, his assured strength and character, that he, Robert, can only fantasize over. Robert fails to grasp that such prestige comes only by putting yourself in the monster’s mouth. During Robert’s subsequent attempts to capitalise on his infamy as James’ killer in a stage show where he shows what happened, he’s foolish enough to play it like it happened instead of developing his own mystique. Charley’s bad portrayal of Jesse removes the sting from the play-acting; later, as Charley becomes embittered and regretful, his impersonation becomes more real, and Robert is soon faced with spiteful names from his audience.
Dominik lays claim with this film to being the most talented director to emerge for Australia since Rolf de Heer 20 years ago. His feel for Americana has obvious influences, but the fresh, cleansed physicality of the film and its burnished, poetic spaciousness are rich and new. Assassination is superior to many of those ’70s mud-and-blood Westerns by being even and assured in tone, and by knowing what it wants to do rather than flailing off the path of clichés (an urge that hobbled ambitious works like The Missouri Breaks, 1976). Dominik’s stranglehold on the pacing and quietude of the work threaten initially to be off-putting, but soon proves methodical. Dominik is conditioning us to the music of the actors’ smallest gestures and the narrative’s fixated purpose; when the moments of violence come they hit with true force. The film could have perhaps been a bit shorter (maybe cutting one of the proliferation of time-lapse cloud shots), and a droning David McCullough-esque voiceover by Hugh Ross just bugged me. Films that stand up this self-importantly as “Serious Art” often have their heads cut off, but Dominik justifies his approach with his results.
The film isn’t really revisionist because it doesn’t merely attack or subvert the James myth. Duvall’s James in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid squarely plugs his myth between the eyes when he shoots an unarmed civilian for no reason, whilst mouthing off his guerrilla war justifications, to make it clear he’s just a psycho with a gun. Pitt’s James is a layered creature, and so is the film’s interest in him. The myth of Jesse, how it enfolded him even in life, is important to the story as it was to the people at the time—idea influences reality and vice versa. Robert wants anything like the celebrity Jesse has, in whatever form, to justify his existence.
Pitt is a majestic Jesse, as perfectly cast as he was as Achilles—both mythical warriors with deeply human fractures to their images—and is this time served by a good film. Such roles make dramatic weapons out of his looks and charisma, which otherwise automatically overwhelm his acting talents that, up until now, have best been showcased by monomaniacal characters (Seven Years In Tibet, 1997; Fight Club, 1999) or outright crazed ones (Kalifornia, 1993) that promised he’d prove to be more than the Tab Hunter of his day. Affleck matches with one of the best male acting performances in years. Previously relegated to light comic relief opposite Scott Cann in the Ocean’s films, Affleck’s Robert Ford grows slowly but surely from an enigma to an all-too-vivid human tragedy. In the film’s wistful, eerie coda, Robert, a grown man, pursued by infamy and tortured by destroying his friend and his own brother, can find a brief solace in the company of an actress Dorothy Evans, (Zooey Deschanel), but waits as patiently for the bullet from behind as Jesse did.