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Reviews The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Andrew Dominik

USA, 2007

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Review by Chiranjit Goswami

Posted on 13 November 2007

Source Warner Brothers 35mm print

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Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

One of the discussions that I kept overhearing at TIFF was a debate over who was the lesser actor: Jude Law or Brad Pitt. Whatever the details of the deliberation the consensus seemed to be that both actors regularly exhibited insipid acting and were thriving only because of their attractive physical appearance. The compulsion to compare the two actors is probably due to their frequent representation of conventional conceptions of masculine confidence and sexual potency within various mainstream movies. However, such limited comparisons only uncover superficial similarities and ignore each actor’s overall contribution to the creative endeavors in which they choose to participate.

Though I’ve never considered either Law or Pitt to be particularly accomplished thespians, as with most stars that obtain a sizeable level of celebrity, I find both actors often flourish whenever they are portraying variations of the overexposed public persona that hinder our perceptions of each actor. Not surprisingly, their most successful roles are usually the result of directors adroitly manipulating each actor’s notoriety into the subtext of the story and contrasting their physical superiority against more respected performers of greater acting ability, but of diminished prominence and aesthetic appeal, in effect positioning the characters depicted by Law or Pitt as an antithesis to more ordinary characters.

What might distinguish Pitt from Law is Pitt’s willingness to openly acknowledge his status as a Hollywood icon and then readily mock the pretense of his public persona within his more notable films. Meanwhile, possibly due to his more moderate stature within Hollywood, Law appears to revel in the shallow and licentiousness qualities of his characters, and whatever redemption they might attain usually feels disingenuous. In contrast, while Pitt is regularly cast as the embodiment of the masculine ideal, his more fascinating films usually attempt to either subtly challenge or severely erode the inherent assumptions lying underneath our traditional perceptions of masculinity. Nevertheless, since his celebrity radiates through every frame of his films, a project involving Pitt tends to be a precarious proposal for any filmmaker. Thankfully, with his latest film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, director Andrew Dominik expertly molds Pitt’s public image to suit his project.

Already accused by some as functioning as an excessive elegy to the charismatic criminal at the center of its story, Dominik’s film more closely resembles an extended dream-like dirge cautioning us about the inevitable cruelty delivered by fate. An adaptation of a novel written by Ron Hansen and deeply indebted to the maverick filmmakers that produced a handful of unconventional westerns during the 1970s, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford avoids historical accuracy and shuns the genre’s customary shootouts, in favor of contemplating our collective obsession with celebrity as filtered through one man’s disastrous devotion to the mercurial idol that he has forever worshiped. Though his film may be branded as merely a revisionist western because it gracefully exposes legendary outlaws and exhaustively lingers upon iniquitous events that transpired in a since faded American frontier, it appears that Dominik’s actual aspiration is to manufacture a rather modern meditation on how we unconsciously allow reality to be refracted through media and reshaped into fable, often at the expense of the participants, in order to construct an altogether confused and artificial account of our collective history. Pensive and poetic, the length of Dominik’s feature is sure to be discouraging to some viewers, but the film never becomes distracted from its principal ambition as a methodical examination of masculine associations torn asunder by resentful betrayal. Instead, Dominik’s masculine marathon exudes a bracing and disquieting intimacy while scrutinizing the obsequious nature of its central relationship that most epics seldom achieve.

The eye of Dominik’s wistful storm is Brad Pitt’s incarnation of the infamous Jesse James. An unrepentant killer whose image has somehow been contorted into gracious humanitarian through foolish folk songs and popular dime-store novels, Dominik provides James with a sumptuous introduction befitting his mythical presence, elegantly establishing the notorious thief amidst the natural splendor of desolate prairie vistas and shooting him in a rapturously somber slow-motion. The film soon recounts the perceived effect James had upon his surroundings, referring to how “rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed,” thereby immediately registering the bandit as more than just a mere mythic figure, conveying his illusory status as a deity capable of shifting time and space. Dominik insists upon inserting such stylistic moments within the film, briefly pausing to admire James in isolation while we are updated about the passing of time. These transitory breaks oscillate between addressing the myth and admitting the reality, at one moment touting the dominion James may hold over his environment by enshrouding his solitary figure within the film’s serenely grimy climate, at another instant dwelling on the desperado’s disfigurement and mentioning that his body is withering away due to premature aging. By stressing the dichotomy between the fantasy and reality of Jesse’s image within these passages, Domink is able to essentially encapsulate the contrary nature of celebrity that he reiterates throughout the rest of his film.

Pitt’s portrayal of James is certainly amongst his most accomplished work, but the role isn’t especially demanding considering the territory he’s asked to explore feels somewhat familiar. Not only does the character allow the Hollywood heartthrob to delve into another deranged and delirious personality, it also seems reasonable to assume that Pitt might easily relate to the notoriety that James relentlessly shoulders. Yet, regardless of any resemblance in the lifestyles of the actor and the character, Pitt’s performance as James shouldn’t be casually dismissed as entirely undemanding. Uniquely attuned to the enormity of his character’s persona, Pitt has rarely been so fascinating to observe, using his typical flashes of intensity to express the explosive aspect of Jesse’s behavior, but also capable of conveying a confusing array of sentiments with a startlingly intimate glare. Pitt’s performance often calls attention to the theatricality of Jesse’s public persona, as if the outlaw is keenly cognizant of the fa√ɬßade that has made him famous and that camouflages the intimacy and tranquility of his personal life as a father and husband. James appears to understand his criminal character is an elaborate charade, but still enjoys the distance it provides him, conceivably allowing Jesse to absolve himself of the cruelty he inflicts upon others while in character.

Nevertheless, there remains something genuinely instinctive and rash about Jesse’s erratic reactions. During one particularly unsettling scene, while relaxing at home with friends, James abruptly alternates between affectionately paternal, terrifyingly hostile, bizarrely ecstatic, and inexplicably rancorous within a matter of moments while his companions react in horror and anxiously adjust to survive the onslaught. It’s difficult to discern with any certainty whether Jesse’s volatile conduct is a result of deliberate swings in his disposition or if he merely succumbs to the stress of frequently switching personalities. At times it feels as if the inherent confusion of his schizophrenic lifestyle finally burns James out into a state of inertia. Whatever the case may be the interpretation of James orchestrated by Dominik and Pitt remains a terrifying and murky mystery.

While Dominik depicts James as maddeningly inscrutable, the director also confidently asserts that the criminal’s primary value is as a falsified legend intricately woven into the history of the American West. Wringing every ounce of gravitas out of stoic Sam Shepard’s limited screen-time as Jesse’s older brother Frank, Dominik demonstrates the disparity between the basic characters of the two James siblings. While the elder James seems determined to remain a stern, skilled, and savvy veteran who contemplates the strategy of the heist, Jesse appears more comfortable assuming his role as the cavalier, confident, charismatic figurehead, fully embracing his reputation as the embodiment of the seductive criminal spirit. Using a handful of scenes, comprised mostly of a few brief glances between the James brothers, Dominik quickly contrasts Jesse’s hollow, yet glamorous, idealized image as the iconic American criminal with Frank’s intense, understated, steadfast substance, which has been largely neglected within American folklore. Once Frank disappears from the scene and abandons his younger brother, it’s no surprise that Jesse begins to falter without the guidance and acumen that his sapient brother provided their crude crew of amateurs, who hastily enlisted based solely upon the renowned reputation of the James name. Having disbanded his gang, Jesse becomes gradually more dormant, left to scheme about extravagant heists that are never actually executed.

Persistently contrasting the stunning stanzas that concentrate on the intrinsic attraction of his handsome lead-actor with countless scenes that demolish the romanticized recollection of the robber, Dominik reveals James to be an unpredictable, temperamental, irrational, manic mess of a man. Dominik’s interprets James is an enigmatic male, fluctuating wildly between an ephemeral cheerful attitude and a lingering sullen disposition. When we initially meet James, he is enjoying juvenile jokes and jovially jostling with the members of his gang, but once his posse disperses, he soon becomes prone to paranoia and sudden bouts of inexplicably merciless brutality against his disciples. As time passes, Jesse becomes increasingly suspicious of the sycophants that surround him, believing their betrayal is inevitable since they would easily exchange their loyalty and amity for the wealth and prestige that would be awarded for their treachery. Eventually, Jesse’s fierce mistrust of his cohorts contorts into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his former cronies sense the threatening glare of their doubting leader and must take action to survive under his intense scrutiny, knowing James is capable of impulsively inflicting carnage. Hence, Dominik’s is able to meticulously craft an atmosphere flooded by fatalism with each scene tinged with the knowledge of a predestined tragedy.

The most prominent of Jesse’s acolytes is Robert Ford, a naïve 19-year-old determined to ride alongside the beloved hero he has worshiped since his childhood, thereby integrating himself into the vaunted adventures he has only read about previously. Accompanied by his more fatuous and forthright older brother, Charley, Robert Ford approaches the James gang during their twilight, desperate to be included on the roster of hooligans that has been haphazardly assembled out of necessity. Eager to ingratiate himself towards either James brother, but too timid to immediately speak with his idol, Ford instead attempts to meekly introduce himself to Frank by declaring that “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things,” though he is unable to look the intimidatingly stalwart brigand in the eye. After sizing up the frail youngster with a cursory glance, Frank curtly dismisses Ford assertion, confidently notifying the devotee that “you don’t have the ingredients.” Though their definitions of ‘greatness’ may differ, neither man is able to adequately comprehend how prophetic Ford’s words will turn out be over time, as he eventually transitions from envious pupil to resentful pariah, destined to act as an infamous Judas to Jesse’s sanctified soul.

Dominik’s morose deliberation on fame and fate may beguile the audience by manipulating Pitt’s celebrity to maximum effect, but his film becomes truly mesmerizing when focused on Casey Affleck. Affleck’s portrayal of Robert Ford is remarkably absorbing as Dominik uses his performance as a direct illustration of the disturbing nature of hero worship, beginning with its initial adoration before descending into an eventual disillusionment. Simply by using a subtle shift in facial expression, Affleck is able to navigate Ford through a multitude of emotions, usually seething in silence, but equally capable of arrogant bravado. Whether it’s a pursing of his lips or an alteration of his eye-line, Affleck is able to convey that Ford’s infatuation with James is a result of having suffered through years of childhood torment which forced him to retreat into falsified tales of Jesse’s criminal exploits that Robert committed to memory. Having been impotent within his own life for so long, Ford is naturally attracted to Jesse’s overwhelming virility. In fact Ford’s obsession with the outlaw carries an unsettling sexual undercurrent that Affleck deftly captures with every longing gaze towards Pitt’s James, but which becomes glaringly obvious while Ford watches James bathe, grateful for the intimacy he has achieved while admiring his hero’s physical form. Jesse’s reaction is to ignore the amorous angle formed between the two men, instead bluntly confronting Ford about the more obvious aspect of their association by exclaiming “I don’t know if you want to be like me or be me.” However, it’s no surprise that he soon dismisses Ford from his side after experiencing this uncomfortable moment.

Despite this distressing dimension to their relationship, the actual target of Ford’s delusional obsession is the imaginary ideal of Jesse James that has been romanticized by the media in order to be sold to the masses as a commodity. Having been seduced by the thrilling allure of autonomy and authority provided by the myth of the Wild West, Ford is determined to seek the respect that has always been withheld from him, seemingly starved for any of the attention that accompanies the actions he assumes to be heroic. Days after executing Wood Hite – a berserk former-friend driven maniacal by jealousy – with astonishing accuracy during a particularly messy melee, Ford begins to strut around his family home with an exceedingly cocky swagger, proudly assuming his role as a deadly gunslinger and finally having attained some form of ascendancy within his own life. At this point, at least within his own mind, Ford is Jesse James.

Alas, Ford’s conception of James soon becomes tarnished. Ford quickly realizes that the heroic version of Jesse James that he has cherished and revered since childhood has little resemblance with the actual criminal that he encounters as an adult, instead finding his idol to be flawed, malicious, and unbalanced. After having to bend to Jesse’s will once too often, Ford’s previously unwavering adulation and envious gaze are abraded into resounding resentment and intense bitterness, as Ford becomes enraptured with the concept of decimating the legend of Jesse James by extinguishing the man. Once Ford makes his ill-fated choice, each conversation between James and his former henchmen is steeped with an excruciating tension as James and Ford repeatedly engage in a silent standoff, constantly goading each other with a steely glance or baiting their opponent with a cryptic phrase in an unnerving test of will. Once Ford finally finishes his infamous deed – which, in Dominik’s vision, feels more like an acceptance of fate by James than an act of murder by Ford – the assassin welcomes the initial onslaught of fame, relishing the opportunity to play the part of a celebrated conqueror. Sadly, we soon learn Ford is entirely unprepared for the inevitable backlash.

The purposely anticlimactic nature of Dominik’s grim coda will likely be tiresome to many viewers, but it’s absolutely necessary for the director to finish his exploration of fame and its effect upon history. In the aftermath of Jesse’s death, as word spreads of the murderous incident, Robert and Charley relocate to New York City to fully bask in their glory, foolishly reenacting the assassination on a regular basis on a massive theatre stage. Now able to replicate his greatest triumph and craving the spotlight that his celebrity has provided Robert is determined to augment his stature within history and establish himself as a hero. Robert naturally assumes the role he has always desired to inhabit; as a courageous Robert Ford who vanquished a villain. However, presumably sensing the pompous presentation of the reproduction, the audience doesn’t readily swallow Ford’s version of the event, instead preferring the charming and charitable myth of Jesse James over any empirical or complex reality. Complicating matters for Robert is Charley’s increasing identification with the character of Jesse James, which was initially trust upon him, but has now become an obsession. Having forgotten how Jesse’s ominous presence nearly unraveled him mentally, Charley slowly starts to mimic the popular bandit’s sinister stare and absorb his demented disposition, at last renouncing Robert’s actions against Jesse and abandoning his younger brother after realizing that the entire theatrical recreation is an altogether loathsome enterprise. Meanwhile, Robert is unable to understand society’s stubborn reluctance to offer him praise and must instead endure the public’s insistence upon eternally branding him as a coward. Incapable of altering the way in which history will ultimately perceive his actions, Ford finds himself to be powerless and pathetic once again and finally attempts to retreat from public life entirely. During his film’s final stretch, Dominik sympathetically assembles Ford’s final days, revealing his life to be submerged in sorrow and regret. Sadly, Ford remains tragically paralyzed by his prominent persona and ignominious actions, ridiculed in a barely concealed manner by those that surround him, until he finally falls victim to a society still bent upon extracting their compensation for his massacre of their beloved idol.

Unlike its naïve protagonist, who is ultimately overwhelmed by the celebrity he so desperately stalks, Dominik’s film comprehends the fickle nature of fame and how it renders an unreliable record of reality. In Dominik’s estimation, America would rather be sold a fabricated fable than receive an accurate perception of the past, and a myriad of merchants are eager to exploit these opportunities. It’s this alarming notion that Dominik demonstrates exceptionally well by dwelling on a deeply distasteful scene where an endless procession of men pay to have their photograph taken with Jesse’s stiff corpse, attempting to forever capture their proximity to James. By the time Nick Cave arrives to sing injudicious folk songs honoring Jesse’s deeds, it has already become disheartening to witness such instantaneous and relentless exploitation of celebrity.

As illustrated by his shrewd casting choices Dominik not only understands his film’s involvement within an industry that facilitates the collective worship of movie stars, but also readily recognizes how film acts as an instrument that allows audiences to revere the notable criminals that have served as subject matter for countless motion pictures. However, Dominik also attempts to undermine the illustrious image of the captivating criminals who reside within the Western genre, continually presenting the members of Jesse’s gang to be weak men consumed by their animosity towards each other and unable to survive without betraying their comrades. Perhaps Dominik’s best argument against the dishonesty depiction of the Western outlaw is the chaotic confrontation between gang members Dick Liddil and Wood Hite. A precursor to Ford’s eventual betrayal of James, Hite’s incursion against Liddil descends into a sloppy sequence of miscalculated gunfire and botched strategy, which has little to do with aptitude, expertise, or dexterity and everything to do with distrust, duplicity, and enmity, but appears to serve as a more honest portrait of the criminal capacity.

While Dominik’s film is distinctively conscious of its influence within contemporary culture and its inescapable function as another account that enables the legend of Jesse James to endure, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford also deliberately draws attention towards its own artifice, almost as an admission of the inherent distortion of reality that the medium of film permits. The film announces and acknowledges its fictitious attributes almost immediately with the inclusion of its lyrical narration. Already derided by some critics as being entirely redundant, overly descriptive, and maybe even forced upon the filmmakers by prying studio hands, the eloquent narration actually enhances and enriches the mythic allure of the Jesse James mystique. By appropriating various passages from Hansen’s expressive prose, the film somehow successfully captures the historic aspects of the story – as if it were a legend the audience should continue to pass down through generations – while simultaneously exposing the specious presentation of the tale through sheer excess. The alternative for Dominik would be to allow the interludes that focus upon Jesse to unfold silently, without any vivid affectation, permitting his audience to deduce the rationale for these scenes by themselves. Conveying meaning primarily through visual methods is usually preferable within film criticism, but though the scenes may have appeared more artistic in their ambiguity if they weren’t interrupted by evocative narration, Dominik also grasps how such scenes would be received when loaded with Pitt’s presence. Unfortunately, when confronted by images that concentrate so exhaustively upon a celebrity of Pitt’s magnitude, the tendency within contemporary film criticism is to dismiss such compositions as the consequences of a director lavishing an inordinate amount of attention upon his, or her, star’s ego, thereby creating empty images devoid of substance. Thus, the inclusion of narration properly shifts the focus away from Brad Pitt and onto Jesse James, allowing Dominik to avoid the accusations that he has become overly enamored with Pitt, or that he has been corrupted by the same subservient and obsessive fawning over celebrity that he is actually attempting to scrutinize and condemn.

While the inclusion of narration may have been a cautious creative choice, Dominik isn’t apprehensive about applying brash stylistic visual flourishes throughout his film. Dominik and his distinguished cinematographer Roger Deakins explicitly embrace the deceptive qualities of movie-making in order to demonstrate how easily it can alter our perceptions. The filmmakers intentionally grant Jesse James a grandiose entrance onto the stage of his last late night train robbery, introducing the bandit as a mysterious figure, silhouetted in shadows, cloaked in steam clouds, brandishing two lethal revolvers, and capable of materializing at his own discretion when he’s ready for his close-up during his final performance. Afterward, Dominik and Deakins visually illustrate James’s renowned impact by distorting the background scenery that encircles Pitt, while he remains untouched; thereby providing James with an almost supernatural aura that suggests the fugitive enjoys the capacity to warp the physical world, as if he were a celestial body that the surrounding environment gravitates towards. Later, they will apply the same technique to convey Jesse’s distorted perspective of the enclosing world as he gradually becomes crippled by paranoia. Though the application of this particular visual practice becomes rather inconsistent and indistinct as the film proceeds, its overuse actually augments the filmmakers’ ability to coerce the audience to detect the fundamental duplicity of filmmaking. While witnessing his delicate disclosure of the natural deception of the image, one is able to observe Dominik’s basic belief that it remains dangerous to rely upon the depiction and interpretation of prominent personalities produced and filtered through the subjective gaze of a contaminated media. Thus, it’s even more tragic to study Dominik’s concluding image of our disgraced protagonist, which obligates the audience to watch as Robert Ford is forever confined within the constrictive perspective of a photograph and frozen within a simplified synopsis of history. Alas, as distressing is it may be to watch a man’s life summarized so succinctly and callously, it’s also fitting that Robert Ford is trapped by the same notoriety that he once desperately pursued.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford appears to have opened across North America without much promotion or fanfare. Apparently the film’s languorous pacing and somber ambiance translated into dwindling box-office receipts. Hence, Dominik’s ambitious tome joins a multitude of recent period pieces by markedly modern directors, such as David Fincher’s Zodiac and Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, that examine similar themes associated with how our culture constructs and sustains the myths that surround prominent personalities. Interestingly, each film actively seeks to emulate the filmmaking styles of their stylistic ancestors while exploring our collective fixation on fame, our distortion of coarse reality into romanticized fiction, and our inability to accurately perceive historical events. Thus, it’s particularly frustrating to witness these films – capable of delivering critical concepts regarding the imprecise lens of contemporary media and their capacity to distort our collective interpretations of reality – go largely unnoticed by the masses, especially when each project achieves its aims with such astonishing artistry. Then again, maybe it’s an appropriate conclusion for the story of Jesse James and Robert Ford to be lost amidst the suffocating hype of contemporary celebrity culture.

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