Harry witnesses THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD!
There are few tales told with the somber bittersweet taste of melancholy, like that of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD.
Why submit to a tale of melancholy – a film where you know right from the out start… Jesse James will be shot, in the back, by the coward Robert Ford.
Everyone knows that part of the story. It’s widely known that Bob Ford shot Jesse James while he was dusting or adjusting a photograph in his own living room. However, do you know why Robert Ford pulled that trigger? Do you know how well they knew each other, that Bob loved Jesse James more than any other person on the planet – and that there’s a lot more to the story than that eventual act of cowardice – which could be interpretated as an act of mercy, an act of self-defense or just an error in judgment… a mistake.
It is a very interesting time we live in where I’ve just seen one of the best Westerns since the death of the Genre with 3:10 TO YUMA – to then be faced by the exact sort of masterful Western that killed the genre altogether.
In the late 1960’s and 70’s – a genre of western came about that ignored the Penny Dreadfuls, the myths and the legends – and instead of the John Ford or Howard Hawks Western take – there became a new way of making westerns. They were Westerns that new they were dying. Films like THE WILD BUNCH and THE PROFESSIONALS were the first signs… They were the brutal westerns where your friends died and the good guys and the bad guys started to become… well, less clearly defined. Then came the Westerns that ceased to look like anything we’ve seen before – no – not ZACHARIAH or EL TOPO – though those definitely count. No – I’m talking about films like JEREMIAH JOHNSON, A MAN CALLED HORSE, THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE or PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID and THE LONG RIDERS.
These were films about the sad reality of legends. It all sort of culminated with UNFORGIVEN – they underlined that the old west was a beautifully ugly world. The whores were no longer Marlene Dietrich, but women that’d gut you as easily as the men. The photography and the scores for the westerns became arty and obscure. They ceased to be about characters you could root for and get behind, and became about how we’re all alone on this world and we’re all going to die badly… oh… and there’s no such thing as a hero.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a brilliant western in that crowd. I love these films – just as I love the mythic westerns. But with this film in particular – it isn’t so much about demystifying the myth of Jesse James – as much as punctuating how tragic and sad the end of that myth was.
My favorite all time Jesse James on film is currently Brad Pitt. There’s a wild rabid dog in his eyes – there’s moments when he’s a nightmare and yet you could see why people would like him. Don’t get me wrong – I love James Keach and Tyrone Power. This particular story was done very well by director Samuel Fuller with his I SHOT JESSE JAMES, as Sam’s very first film to direct. Even James Dean played Jesse on Walter Cronkite’s amazing show, “YOU ARE THERE” – and I have to wonder what that was. I’d love to see it – just because James Dean was very definitely an actor – not unlike Brad Pitt in technique and style. But Brad’s Jesse James is a squirrelly character. He observes the room he’s in, studying anyone in it and their every move. And everyone else reacts to him – as if he’s a rattlesnake. They become still and cautious. There’s respect and fear. Nobody wants to get bit, but they all know if they spend too long with him, it’ll be an inevitability.
However, as great as Brad is as Jesse James – the actor to watch and marvel at in this film is Casey Affleck.
I know – that sounds astonishing, but it is absolutely the god’s own truth. Casey Affleck delivers the single best performance that I’ve seen thus far this year. His Robert Ford is a reprehensible little worm. There’s something about the way he plays this character that makes you want to stand up from your seat and slap the bitch around then hit him with a fucking shovel. He’s vile and disgusting. But on the surface, he’s just a nice unassuming guy. You would never really notice him. It might be that we all know he’s going to shoot Jesse James. And this story is very much about why that act was such a vile betrayal.
Casey’s Bob Ford is young. He hero worships Jesse James. The line in the trailer, “Do you want to know me or be me?” is so icky in the film, because Casey is watching. Casey’s smile is so disingenuine as to make my skin crawl. It literally gave me the heebie jeebies.
However – this is all distracting the real star of the film… Andrew Dominik. We last saw him with CHOPPER – an utterly brilliant film which birthed Eric Bana on to the scene. The two films are pretty far apart, but essentially a similar tale. Wild Rabid Dogs of the human variety facing betrayal and an end to their reign of terror. But in CHOPPER it was stark reality. Here, it is poetic. There is brutality, but it punctuates the beauty of existence, which you could say is reality. We live in a beautiful world that is punctuated by ugliness. When you watch this film – it’s impossible to not be intoxicated by how beautiful it is. Roger Deakins is a shoo-in for a nomination at least for his work here.
Then there’s the melancholic thread punctuated by the beautiful musical work of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. If you loved Nick’s brilliant work on THE PROPOSITION – he is again at the top of his game here. That score in conjunction with the narration provided by someone named Hugh Ross… well it gives the film a feeling of impending doom. Any smile or laughter you see are momentary hiccups on the tragedy that is inevitable. Any hope is ended by the deliberate nature of the score and Hugh’s deliberate and slightly sad narration.
All of this combines to make a masterful tragic film. This is a brilliant film.