It’s hard to imagine Jesse James faring well in the era of Court TV, competing with the likes of O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, Michael Jackson, Nicole Richie, Robert Blake, and Phil Spector. Ours is the era of the outlaw celebrity. Jesse James was merely a celebrity outlaw.
To Reconstruction-era Southerners of the 1860s and ’70s, however, this Missourian was something else entirely — a Confederate patriot whose violent exploits were widely viewed as a kind of postwar payback, blackening the eyes of the federal authorities he and elder brother Frank managed to skillfully elude for more than a decade. He was, quite simply, a legend in his own time — George Washington, Robin Hood, and Elvis rolled into one — before he was even 25.
Most of the mystique, of course, was unwarranted; James was never anything but a murderous thug. Still, wounded Southern pride was such that any hero was better than no hero — a sentiment widely shared by the artists, journalists, and dime novelists who eagerly hitched themselves to James’ phony martyr complex, abetting the myth that lingers even to this day.
All of this is appropriate preamble to discussing New Zealand director Andrew Dominik’s stunning new film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, insofar as it underscores the magnitude of James’ fame and sets the stage for his undoing.
There’s more than a little irony here: The movie, based on Ron Hansen’s widely acclaimed 1983 historical novel of the same name, is really more about Ford than James. Considered by some to be one of the finest works of American historical fiction ever written, Hansen’s novel sought to dispel the James myth by focusing on Ford, a feeble young man, whose almost groupie-like infatuation with the outlaw was dashed after his elder brother Charley — a member of James’ gang — facilitated an introduction. By all accounts, James treated Ford poorly, even contemptuously. That fed a seething resentment, which, combined with the allure of wealth and notoriety, lit the fuse that eventually ended his life.
If that sounds just a tad interior for a major studio movie, it is. And it may account for why the film languished for nearly two years while studio brass wrestled over what to do with it. Fortunately, that process has not wrought the kind of malformed mutant that usually emerges from the marketing department after too many creative execs get their hands on it. At 160 minutes — and saturated with Terrence Malick-influenced style (with a dollop of McCabe and Mrs. Miller) — this is surely the film that writer-director Dominik (whose only previous picture was the kinetic and offbeat Chopper) intended to make.
In a role that seems destined to earn him an Oscar nomination, Casey Affleck plays Ford to Brad Pitt’s equally impressive James. The year is 1881, and the gang’s best days are long gone. Frank (Sam Shepard) will shortly say his farewells to his undisciplined younger brother, now 33, with each of the remaining members — Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) — soon going their own ways as well … though not before nineteen-year-old Robert seizes at the chance to ingratiate himself sycophantically into Jesse’s life.
It might all have ended there, had Jesse simply returned to domestic life under an assumed name with his wife and cousin Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and children (Brooklynn Proulx and Dustin Bollinger). But simmering paranoia over the bounty still on his head, together with a general inability to let go of his bandit ways, leads him to seek out his old mates and test their loyalty.
If you’re wondering how such a simple story could possibly fill nearly three hours of screen time, you’re probably not this film’s target audience. Those in a rush to get the general gist of the tale would do better watching Samuel Fuller’s stylish 1949 film, I Shot Jesse James, which clocks in at a brisk 81 minutes.
Dominik’s movie, by contrast, is bravely and intentionally anticlimactic — more poetic meditation than conventional narrative. What ultimately happens is less important than why, and what characters do is of strictly secondary importance to how they think. Beyond the obvious revelation of the film’s title, most of the major chronological turning points are either skipped in their entirety or divulged before the fact in narration (read by Hugh Ross) culled from Hansen’s elegiac prose, forcing audiences to abandon any traditional expectation of narrative linearity in favor of existential reflection.
This is bound to strike some as pretentious twaddle, particularly in the wake of a Western as unapologetically conventional as 3:10 to Yuma. But for all its high style — Roger Deakins’ dreamlike photography, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ haunting score, and Patricia Norris’ meticulous production and costume design — it’s impossible to accuse the film of betraying either its period or the historical record. There have been dozens of films about or featuring Jesse James, as far back as Lloyd Ingraham’s 1927 silent Jesse James starring Fred Thomson and as recently as 2001’s American Outlaws with Colin Farrell. But nearly all have tinkered with the same general notion — most famously put forward in Henry King’s 1939 Jesse James with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda — that Jesse was simply a misguided but otherwise earnest charmer. Even Walter Hill’s 1980 The Long Riders, one of the subgenre’s better entries, stopped short of assailing that myth.
To his enormous credit, Dominik has thrown caution to the wind — stylistically, narratively, and thematically — in order to lay bare whatever simple truths more than a century of mythmaking have obscured. From a professional standpoint, that’s the kind of high-wire act that can make or break a career. Whether Dominik’s film becomes Days of Heaven or Heaven’s Gate, only time will tell. But there should be no doubting the achievement of bringing a film of this magnitude and vision to fruition, especially from within a studio framework. Love it or hate it, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford leaves no room for indifference.