A Misleading Study In Melancholy: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

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“Yeah, just ain’t no peace with old Jesse around.”

Defiantly uncommercial, from the King James bible cadence of its players victoriana valedictions, to the shaggy dog narrative of an outlaw folk hero’s last days, that stretches on beyond his titular killing – even Terrence Malick called this film slow. Yet this badly marketed 2007 film has had a second life in critical Q & A roadshows with director Andrew Dominik, brought about by the stubborn love of one fan, who purchased a 35mm print for his bachelor party, no less. Is it therefore time to declare  The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford a modern masterpiece?

I would argue, yes. They do still “make them like that” – it’s up there with Sam Peckinpah’s restored Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid,  and also shares the subversion of myth laid out by Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller. Studio bean counters may not know what to do with such elegiac tales of foreboding, but audiences will always eventually seek out intelligent film-making.

Dominik likens his Jesse James to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, in the sense that a feeling of inexorable fate hangs over their respective doomed protagonists. Like Kubrick’s film, it also employs a voice-over narrative – passages from Ron Hansen’s 1980 novel (discovered by Dominik in an Australian second hand bookstore) glide us through these last days of desperado with a presaging cool detachment. Star Brad Pitt (Jesse) was also the producer – Jesse James was an early project for the actor’s Plan B production company, Pitt keen to spread his wings with more diverse and prestigious work. He even stipulated to Warner Brothers that the title could not be contracted (though I will in this piece). Dominik concurred, considering the title matched the languid feel of the film – “It needed to look (with the 19th century dime novel dialogue) somehow, like it was from the period.”

Cinematographer Roger Deakins did some of his finest work on this picture, and numbers it amongst his favourites. Some scenes have a blurred effect around the edges of the frame – Deakins took old wide-angle lenses and fitted them to modern cameras:

Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera…we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew [Dominik] liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo.”

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Like Robert Altman on McCabe & Mrs Miller, who “flashed” his film negative, and used filters, the effect is sometimes like standing just outside the frame of a daguerreotype. These images, of which there are many, ranging from dappled sunlight piercing Jesse’s empty home after he has moved his family on, to billowing fields of wheat grain, and huge skies filling the frame, serve to allow a Malick-ian contemplative space between the tensions underlying Jesse’s simmering paranoia and hair trigger violence.

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It is telling that in almost every instance of gunfire, the victim is unarmed, and nearly always shot in the back, foreshadowing Jesse’s own fate. Jesse’s idolater Robert Ford (a brilliant Casey Affleck) is warned by Sheriff Timberlake when he has been authorised to kill Jesse, “Wait your chance..and do not let him get behind you.” There are no classic Western heroics, no mid-street fast draws. It’s kill or be killed, a sweaty-palmed dilemma.

At times the film plays like an earlier period gangster film.  It opens with a night time train robbery – like Oliver Stone’s recut  Alexander, with the battle of Guagamela pushed front and centre, showing us the protagonists we think we are familiar with, before delving into psychodrama. Jesse visits a gang member from that robbery later, who he suspects of conspiring against him with another. During a tense conversation Jesse gets up and contemplates the gathering storm out the window. “What do you say if we go for a ride?” – just like the Mafia speak of “Let’s take a walk” before a bullet to the head.

By 1881 Frank James (Sam Shepard) has retired as head of the James gang, leaving younger, mercurial brother Jesse in charge. Jesse is unfathomable to his men. His own children do not know his (or their) real name. His heightened feelings are defined by his paranoia, and his mood can turn on a dime. Pitt is chilling as he chides and mocks Ford and older brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) before letting loose a cackling laugh that seemingly erupts from the pits of hell, jangling their strung out nerves even more.

He beats on a young boy for the whereabouts of his father, another individual he believes conspires against him, before weeping in shame at the hot, angry tears he summons from the lad. Jesse exerts a powerful aura, as the narrator recounts:

Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to.”

Nineteen year old Robert Ford has sought to ingratiate himself with his outlaw hero, losing himself in newspaper clippings and dime novels secreted beneath his bed. Jesse amuses himself by allowing this wheedling pup to trot at his heels, musing out loud, “I can’t figure it out. You wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?

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Dominik said of their relationship, “One of the things I particularly like is how these characters struggle more with themselves than with each other. Each is shaping reality to suit his desires and anxieties and they really do not connect with each other.”

“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever so often or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.”

Perhaps Jesse engineers his own downfall, nerves stretched to breaking point by a life of constant upheaval and looking over his shoulder. By drawing in the fragile, hero worshipping Ford and needling him so, he sets not just his own fate, but ensures his legend lives on.

Dominik’s favourite part of the film is the assassination, its lead-up and aftermath:

“…there’s so much going on in that scene, like emotional transference all over the place (the narrator recounts how when Jesse and his family are out at church, Ford “slyly migrated from room to room. He walked into the Master bedroom and inventoried the clothes on the hangers and hooks. He sipped from the water glass on the vanity. He smelled the talcum and lilacs on Jesse’s pillowcase. His fingers skittered over his ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot. He manufactured a middle finger that was missing the top two knuckles. He imagined himself at 34. He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true. “)

 

Then when you see it replayed, when they’re making a mockery of it onstage and it seems like a thin reconstruction of the event and then it becomes this nightmare that you’re trapped in.”

Jesse sets the stage himself, remarking “Don’t that picture look dusty?” having deliberately removed his gun belt and placing it out of reach. He sets a chair to reach the highly placed frame.  Jesse sees Ford draw in the reflection of the glass (the camera, and the viewer, takes Jesse’s point of view, watching Ford) but does nothing to prevent what is about to occur.

When he is shot by Robert Ford (just before an even more reluctant Charlie can do so) his fallen body is captured in a concave glass reflection from across the room, or stage.

jesse james reflection

This concave image of the end of his life is cleverly matched shortly afterwards as his body is put on show, captured in the photographer’s camera lens. This marks the beginning of his second life as an icon, and later the subject of the New York play Charlie and Robert perform in, Charlie taking on the Jesse role, before the public sours on “the dirty little coward who shot Jesse James.”  

jesse james camera reflection

The finale has become a neat inversion of the title – Jesse has ensured that, like the ampersand of McCabe & Mrs Miller, there is no Jesse myth without Ford’s killing. While Jesse remains a legend, despite his cruel and selfish deeds, he has ensured forever the character assassination of Robert Ford, a weak young man who’s adoration turned to anger, himself shot by a nobody, enraged by his “persiflage” and boasting:

…he truly regretted killing Jesse, that he missed the man as much as anybody and wished his murder hadn’t been necessary…. There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores… no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.” 

 

 

Originally posted 2014-09-07 12:24:24. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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