Tell me a film will look into the dark, gloomy pits of men’s souls and I’m there, front row centre. I have no doubt The Assassination Of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t for everyone. It’s not exactly short, it’s not a saucy gunslinging jazzed up true-life tale, and there’s little in the way of actual ‘action’ per se. Rather, it’s introspective; a brooding meditation on celebrity, mortality, one’s own limitations, and on the character of Jesse James & Robert Ford.
The aim is to try and allure you, get under your skin. If you’re partial to it, as I was, you’ll find it hypnotic. It’s one of 2007’s very best films; bold, beautiful and bent. It’s also quietly audacious. Say what you will about gossip-mag King Bradley Pitt – but if his name (attached here as producer as well as star) gets films like this into cinemas, power to him.
Jesse James (Pitt) is played up as the celebrity of the time (1870/80s) and the subject of a great American fascination. Romanticised through camp fire tales, newspapers & paperback novels, James was a rogue frontiersman – a rebel and a free man in an increasingly civilized society. He was of course a hugely successful outlaw, stealing from banks & the wealthy who took cross-country trains.
Pitt’s fame then, adds to the role. Not only this, Pitt is a fascinating watch when playing characters sliding the slippery slope of sanity (Fight Club) which James very much is. The film covers the twilight of his career, where his fame is at a peak and has turned into a major burden. This, and the bounty on his head, is doing his head in and has turned him paranoid – suspecting all around him of wanting to bring him down.
Pitt’s random bursts of cackling, and his mood swings – from brazen, tough & smart to dark & suicidal – is one of the film’s lasting impressions.
However our main story follows Robert Ford played by Casey Affleck - an impressionistic, eager beaver of a 19-year-old - who grew up on the James legend. The youngest of his siblings and the butt of jokes, Ford is driven by a desire to prove himself. He’s insecure and dependent on the approval of others, but also cocky – believing himself to have the steely resolve to match it with James. Affleck is pitch perfect as Ford, presenting a complicated, quite odd and depressingly human character.
Why is Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, forthcoming Joshua) always overlooked? He plays Robert’s brother Charley – James’ right hand man. As James alienates himself, his gang whittles to just him and the Ford brothers. Watching the trio go at it is a brilliant watch – Pitt at his best with two of the most interesting & most idiosyncratic actors of a generation in Rockwell & Affleck.
The story continues after Jesse James’ betrayal. Robert attempts to capitalise on his found fame (in one instance with a stage play than re-enacts the assassination), while Charley slides into depression.
The American landscape has a sorrowful and other-wordly quality, all brown and bronze, windswept and gritty, shot gorgeously by the third Coen brother; cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Suitably enough, Kiwi born director Andrew Dominik sets a funeral like atmosphere to the proceedings. As displayed with his excellent first film Chopper, about Australia’s famous modern day criminal Mark Reed, Dominik has a knack for making the interesting decision at every step. For instance the only robbery we see is cold & ruthless and not endearing to the characters at all. He de-myths the James myth. Aided by his great cast, he constantly takes you in unfamiliar directions.
Reviewed by Paul Scantlebury.