The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (U.S., 2007)
* * * 1/2
D: Andrew Dominik
Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is nearing the end. He stages one last train robbery, then his older brother (Sam Shepard) splits, and it's up to Jesse to put the gang on their separate ways. In these last days, with the law hot on their trail and the pressure bearing down hard, Jesse's men start to get anxious and more than a little paranoid. Each thinks James is gunning for him, and he just might decide that's a good idea, when he sees the guilty look in their eyes. This includes the brothers Ford, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and his kid brother Bob (Casey Affleck), both of whom have a severe loyalty to their leader, although Bob's is a fealty born of youthful idolization. He keeps Jesse James novellas and portraits stored in a box under his bed, and he's bitterly ashamed and defensive when Charley and the other bandits tease him about it--although he's just as willing to heap praise upon James to his face, with earnest eyes and a stupid smile that creeps up his face despite his best attempts to bat it down.
Chopper director Andrew Dominik's sophomore film, in its quiet, frontier lyricism, bears more than a passing resemblance to the work of Terrence Malick (Badlands in particular); but he contributes a unique flavor with a modern, moody score, courtesy rock musician Nick Cave (who also wrote and scored The Proposition), and interludes shot as if through smoked glass, narrated by Hugh Ross, who provides historical footnotes as well as beautiful snapshots of the characters' well-hidden emotional lives. These passages are presumably taken from the novel by Ron Hansen, and they certainly lend a literary texture to the film, which unfolds at a gradual pace, with each moment of suspense or action drawn out and dissected before being folded back into its package. Most notably this can be seen in the train robbery, which begins as an almost spiritual ritual, as the train's spotlight floods the woods like the coming of Titania, casting eerie white light upon each of the shoddily-hooded faces of the James gang, who gaze at it, enraptured; Jesse merely waits with his lantern in the middle of the tracks, waiting for the train to stop. Never mind that it shouldn't be able to so quickly--the sequence is in slow-motion, and by film logic, the train has an eternity to come to rest. This gorgeous scene soon transitions into the nature of the heist itself, with thundering guns, startled passengers, and one fellow guarding the safe, visibly summoning all the courage he can to stand up to Jesse James. He'd be a minor character in any other film, but by Dominik's method, every face has a story worth telling. That extends to the curious assignation between Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and the young wife (Kailin See) of the father of his friend Wood Hite; the two make preposterous passes, hers a bit more clever than his, until they finally meet in an outhouse. The sequence does bear some import upon the plot, but it plays as its own isolated sketch, and it's just about as perfect as anything you'll see in a modern Western.
But the focus, of course, is on the story of Bob Ford's fascination with Jesse James. At the start of the film he's just a tagalong desperate to be a sidekick in the gang. Soon James begins to treat him like a little brother, to the relief of Charley Ford, and the resentment of everyone else, including Jesse's wife. What makes their relationship interesting is that it isn't static: Bob picks fights with Jesse where others wouldn't have the courage, in his confused efforts to deal with his own devotion to this sometimes undeserving bully, sadist, and killer. Jesse, in turn, threatens Bob's life, then apologizes to him the next day by presenting him with a nickel-plated pistol. Since you know the outcome of the story, the telling depends upon building interest in this relationship and its import; it almost succeeds. I found Casey Affleck's Bob Ford to be a bit too slow, a bit too sweaty-palmed and simpering, to sustain my interest for every moment he's on the screen, although I can't say the same for Pitt. It's telling, if predictable, that reviews of this film bypass Pitt in their recognition and praise for Affleck. That's because this is Affleck's first major performance; quite the opposite of his role in Gus van Sant's understated Gerry, here the camera focuses on his face and studies every tic and twitch and bead of sweat. It's a good performance, but a tiring one in this 160-minute film. Pitt, on the other hand, is the best that he has ever been. When he catches the camera's stare, it's a pure pleasure to see him studying Bob and the other members of his gang, judging their loyalty, finding it lacking, and then, with an almost sublimated despair, forging ahead regardless. He does shoot a man in the back, beat an adolescent boy senseless, and implicitly threaten everyone else, all while nursing a paranoia that grows wider by the day--but you still have a magnetic attraction to the man. All that works beautifully, thanks to a moving performance by Pitt. Sam Rockwell is good, too, although a bit overplayed; this is the kind of Western where there are no stalwarts, only nervous wrecks, and Rockwell is here the most toady of sidekicks, eager to please James lest it cost him his life.
There's one drunken barroom scene, with Nick Cave making a (strangely anachronistic) cameo, that is so unnecessary and familiar that it seems to belong to any other Western--or every other Western. And the film does, finally, drag on just a little bit too much. But it is so absorbing, so perfectly paced, that these slightest missteps seem glaring. This is a patient, observant, and valuable film, and there should be more like it.