At Blockbuster, Westerns are considered a subgenre of “Action”, meaning that all the Western pictures a given Blockbuster store has for rent are likely to be found in the Action section. (Very few stores have the demand for a distinct Westerns section.) This occasionally leads to some peculiar categorizations; for example, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, just about the antithesis of an action film, is to be found sitting on the shelves between Demolition Man and Die Hard. (The alphabetization is “loose”.)
Along those lines, The Assassination etc. etc. is sure to be miscategorized once it hits DVD; it’s a no bones Western, but it certainly doesn’t belong in the action section of the video store. Sure, it has an exciting train robbery sequence stuck into its opening reels, but the remainder of the film is short on shoot-em-up set-pieces, opting instead to be a meticulous study of the two eponymous characters’ simmering hostilities towards one another to the point of their boiling over. It’s a dialogue-driven character study, but though a talky film, the meat isn’t in the dialogue; this is, above all, a purely visual film, patient, poetic and painterly, that wouldn’t lose much of its meaning if you shut off the dialogue track. (Though Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is perfect, so you should leave it in.)
The movie tells its story primarily through Roger Deakins’ sumptuous photography, often blurred at the edges to emphasize the haziness of history, and the gazes of its two leads, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. The Assassination of Jesse James… essentially boils down to two sets of eyes. Pitt says volumes more, for example, when introduced as James, staring teary-eyed at fires mysteriously raging on a desert plain, than he does in any moment of dialogue, like the subsequent scene in which he mocks the late President Lincoln’s sexual vitality. As Paul Schneider, as a member of the James Gang, notes early on, emphasizing the film’s guiding philosophy, “you can hide things in vocabulary.” The flip side to that, of course, is that images, in their honesty, belie the false claims of deceitful language. This is a director, and a director of photography, who have a deep understanding of the visual component of their medium and its contrapuntal relationship to text.
Overall, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, like its full title, is a bit drawn-out and is bound to test the patience of most who go into it; the most obvious parallel would be to the films of Terrence Malick, though it’s not as lethargic or conspicuously pretentious as Malick’s work tends to be. (N.B. I generally like Malick, so I mean those criticisms cheekily.) The two-plus hours of viewing effort pays off, however, in a masterful coda that brings it all together, proving the film to be an allegory for how easily the cocky, ruthless ambition of youth turns into desiccation and the deep regret of old, or middle, age. While watching it, the film might feel too long, but by the end those feelings ought to have evaporated. It feels just right, and for those who can’t make it to the pay-off, Dominik has a built-in criticism early on, again from the mouth of Schneider: “poetry don’t work on whores.”
Crude, I agree, but the film is chockablock with that sort of vulgar talk that outlaws surely awash themselves in. The film finds Jesse James long past his heyday, at the age of 34, living in obscurity under a pseudonym and gradually descending into paranoia, suspicion and derangement. “Sometimes I hardly recognize myself,” James says in a moment of lucidity. “I wonder about that man,” he says of himself, “that’s gone so wrong.” Along comes a bright-eyed, sycophantic whippersnapper by the name of Bob Ford (Affleck) who claims an “appetite for greater things,” seeing himself destined for eminence while obsessed, in an unhealthy, 13-year old girl mannerâ€”complete with embarrassed temper-tantrums and a shoebox of mementos under his bedâ€”with the infamous bandit Jesse James. The front of his Trapper Keeper would be hardly visible for all the drawn hearts with Jesse’s name scrawled in them, Cupid’s arrow poking through their cores.
Though Jesse’s brother, played by Sam Shepard, dismisses Ford as nothing but a child chasing nickel-book stories, James, taking a flattered and bemused shine to the boy, takes him under his wing, and alternately pushes him away and draws him closer until each feels compelled to kill the other. For the sake of concise explanation, IMDb’s plot summary explains it this way: “Robert Ford joins Jesse James’s gang, only to become resentful of the legendary outlaw,” but to ascribe Ford’s motivations to sheer resentment is damagingly reductive; what makes The Assassination of Jesse James and so on so compelling is the essential mystery underlying the relationship between the two men, especially the mystery beneath Affleck’s somnolent and sexual stare, all at once of the sort wives show their husbands, mothers their sons, sons their fathers and the drowsy their beds.
(Pitt is fantastic as James, in full-on weepy Babel mode, though with his eyebrows generally leveled, but it’s Affleck, with a wonderfully added pubescent crack in his voice, whose performance proves revelatory.)
James himself hits the nail on the head when he asks Ford: “do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” It’s Ford’s emulation of James that leads him to kill his idol, enemy and best friend; the pusillanimous gunshot is analogous to all of the merciless slayings, few of which are seen in the film, that weigh heavy on James’ eyes. (The film’s key scene may be that in which James ferociously beats a young boy in the hopes of getting information on the whereabouts of the boy’s uncle, only to fall into a paroxysm of weeping, hiding his face against his horse, moments later.)
After the sad assassination, Ford and his brother Charlie, a stirring turn from the under- or generally mis-used Sam Rockwell, take to the New York stage, recreating the killing in public over 800 times as though trapped in a very special type of hell. The repetition of the act, and its historical revisionism, exposes the artifice and mendacity of legend and the disconnect between a man and his mythos, and robs the murder of a ruthless robber of its potential heroism and rectitude. James achieves legendary status and Ford, in history’s eyes, becomes Brutus’ companion in the ninth circle of Hell. Ford assumes the burdensome guilt and loneliness of his victim and learns the vicissitudes of celebrity and “greatness”. It’s a beautiful section and it stings deeply as films rarely do. Suddenly, marvelously, the whole film clicks into place. Dominik’s film may be lengthy, but it’s never digressive nor superfluous; he knows exactly where he’s been going the entire time.
“You know what I expected?” a now wise-beyond-his-years Affleck asks his Mrs. Miller incredulously in his later years. “Applause.” You got it, buddy; can’t you hear me in the back of the theater?