[Note: Here’s another sampling from the “olden days”—of my review for a movie that should have been, but sadly wasn’t, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.]
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost as long as its title, but it may be the most valiant attempt at truly literary filmmaking in a while. It is a film that earns its elegantly archaic photography (shot by Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ frequent cohort) and, perhaps, its slow deliberation over each and every frame. Although the setting is long past—in what remained of the Old West by the 1880s—the movie goes beyond the acceptance it may have had as simply another handsome period piece; it’s surprisingly relevant today.
The film opens with the last train robbery perpetrated by the James gang. It is here that Deakins is at his most indulgent; the dreamlike, fuzzy-edged cinematography is at an apex, pairing the sumptuousness of Terrence Malick films with the blurry decay of old photos. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), an awkward 19-year-old raised on Jesse James (Brad Pitt) dime-novels, insists that he take part in the venture. Jesse’s father—and later his wife—get the creeps from this naïve teenager, but the boy is admitted, nonetheless, and, on the train, he gets his first taste of Jesse’s temper: an engineer who refuses to kneel down before the bandit is bludgeoned mercilessly.
Bob never gains the respect of the rest of the gang, which Jesse picks off one-by-one by for acts of treason against him. By the end, only Bob and his dim-witted older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), remain. Bob idolizes Jesse, but he’s like a fanboy who meets William Shatner and then realizes that the Starship Enterprise has never lifted off the ground. His first-hand experience is nothing like the cheap romances that he still keeps hidden in a shoe box under his bed. The true Jesse James is lunatically violent and paranoid; in one scene, he almost tears off a young boy’s ear when pumping him for information, but, by covering his mouth, never even gives the boy an opportunity to reply. The movie, however, has the decency to not peg the icon as simply a raging monster; at the end of the scene, the celebrated outlaw breaks down and cries.
The film is just as much Bob’s as Jesse’s, though. Charley forces an anecdote out of his brother about the long list of comparisons Bob has compiled between himself and Jesse; when his hero—who constantly tests his minions’ allegiance—mocks him for this, the railway bandit’s fate is sealed. The titular assassination makes the perpetrator as well-known as the victim—just as he always dreamed—but his celebrity is tinged with infamy and allegations of cowardice. Jesse James, the romanticized brute, is immortalized as a folk hero; his slayer becomes a folk villain.
It is either remarkable fortune or the sign of pure genius that Brad Pitt, arguably today’s most established male star, performs the role of an over-hyped tabloid celebrity of yesteryear. He does not need to be Brando; as the mercurial, mysterious James, he needs his star’s presence—and, costumed in black and sporting the smile of a charming roué, he gives James the larger-than-life power that made him a myth. (In a nod to one of James’s successors, he slips into an impersonation of Warren Beatty’s Clyde Barrow from time to time.) But he culls the right degree of sensitivity, too, in a much practiced performance. Everything that James does is minutely tooled; he’s blasé about his celebrity, but thrives on living up to his reputation. His alpha-male instinct for self-protection eventually drives him mad and Pitt plays James as a troubled existentialist, whose unpredictable bursts of malice are intertwined with moody desperation. James’s fate has the weight a tragic hero’s; his own eccentricities lead to his downfall and the lives around him collapse like dominoes.