Number of films have been made on Jesse James over the years. There is Fuller’s acclaimed I Shot Jesse James (1949), Nick Ray's The True Story of Jesse James (1957), Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972), Walter Hill's The Long Riders (1980) and now Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2005). Majority of those films have dealt with James story more like a biography. Based on the novel of the same name, this films is less interested in the details and events of his life, but more in deconstructing Robert Ford’s perception of his “idol” and his relationship with James as his psyche deteriorates towards the end of his life.
Jesse James embodied this larger than life Robin hood figure who was a criminal by the very definition of it and a cold blooded killer when he had to be one, but also by some accounts a committed family man who generously distributed the usurped wealth to the needy. While the jury is out on some of these claims associated with the man, the mythology built around him had not eluded the young and impressionable Robert Ford. Andrew Dominik does not give a conventional “shoot them up” western treatment. If anything the film functions as anti-western along the lines of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Miller (1971) and Thieves Like Us (1974), not interested in action set pieces or Mexican stand offs, but works more like a period piece with a certain introspective, meditative “Mallickian” touch. We meet Jesse when the gang is on the verge of break up and is planning its last robbery with the Union army, federal agents and Pinkerton men on his heels.
It is hard to think of many films that have a title which gives the story away. As the name suggests, the film is about killing of James at the hand of “Coward” Robert Ford. But what it doesn’t reveal is that James gets killed more once. Robert Ford ( Casey Affleck ) was a product of the times, a 20 year old smitten by the image of James, collecting every possible piece of literature mystifying the glamorous outlaw as he and his brother Charley Ford join the gang. His "fascination" with Jesse is akin to comic book fanatic idolizing his super hero, except maybe Ford had a certain innate infatuation which maybe not all would share. There is something pure about it, not obscured by the ambiguous ideas of morality or decency. But the image is castigated when it confronts the man himself. As he watches, James sit alone and awkward as his brother Frank James leaves the gang, as he sees James despondent with the failed train robbery, as he becomes increasingly paranoid about one his gang men giving him up to the cops, insecure and moody during his final days or the claim of receiving messages from God which no one believed.
Every encounter with Jesse probably killed some part of him in Ford's mind, which by his own confession "he has lost some curiosity over the years" and as he conveys to his brother Charley Ford his motive to kill James "He is just a human being". This transition from a celebrity to just a human being is nothing less than a murder. Probably, part of Ford also died during this time since all he wanted to do or be was Jesse James, "You want to be like me or you want to be me" Jesse enquires. Jesse James in his final few days reviewing his life, trying to protect his family and cut off the possible trails but losing his peace of mind, regretting some instances . By the end, he just wanted to be put out of his misery. Ford had committed the act before he pulled the trigger. Jesse was no longer the same for him.
Like Barry Lyndon(1975)’s Redmond Barry, Charles Ford also cherished the ideas of fame, wealth and glory and probably was doomed from the very beginning. Fate, it seems had its own sense of irony. Death of Jesse James death rather than proving the fallibility of the myth, reinforces it further.
The technique and the narrative for the film works more on level imagery, the background score and an objective narrator. One of the best sequences in the film is the train robbery sequence. Very rarely does background score (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) and the imagery synchronize to such effect. In order to enhance the “blacks” for the train robbery at night, cinematographer Robert Deakins, used bleach bypass on the negative. Some scenes in the film have a blurred effect around the borders of the frame, which were achieved by taking old wide-angle lenses and mounting them onto the front several cameras (Arri Macros in this case).
Brad Pitt remains a rare mixture of sublime beauty, great commercial appeal and the audacity to venture into the unknown and sometimes offbeat cinema. If he manages to top this effort, it will be some performance. As a man counting his days, both reveling and suffocating in his public persona, Pitt manages to show both pride and vulnerability of Jesse James. Pitt has no reference point and the drama is largely a conjecture, but he does manage to provide the most reasonable version of Jesse James. Exceptional performance by Casey Affleck ( role originally offered to Shia Le Boeuf ). Affleck has shown potential in the past, be it Gerry ( Gus Van Sant, 2002 ) or Gone Baby Gone ( Ben Affleck, 2007 ). It must have been challenging role to play a 20 year old who will be going through the tumultuous years possible and also. Of the support cast, Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner are good as one would expect with Paul Schneider being the surprise package.
Andrew Dominik burst on to the scene with the Australian Film Chopper (2000) starring Eric Bana, another story of a glamorous criminal although told in more “Goodfellas” tone, fast paced and to the point. By his own admission he wanted to make this film, in Terrence Mallick narrative style with greater emphasis on tone, image and space. Domink, as a Kiwi director, brings a rather unique perspective to the story. There is little interest in understanding the little details of his life. More about breaking the veil of celebrity. But as it usually happens, the person is flawed and gone but the celebrity remains forever.
To quote Peter Bradshaw “Jesse senses that, inevitably, one of his gang will in any case sell him out for a fat reward. Unwilling to give the lawmen that satisfaction, James embraces his own death and subtly cultivates the mercurial attentions of the most obviously cringing and cowardly of his associates: 20-year-old Robert Ford. With the taunts and whims of a lover, he encourages Ford's envious, murderous fascination, and grooms him as his own killer, so that his own legend will be pristine after his death.”