When the western finally wore out its welcome on both the big and small screens, it required that most reactionary of entertainment ideals – revisionism and/or deconstructionism - to mark it’s marginal return. Beginning with the sensational spaghetti phase, and working through phases both existential and esoteric, filmmakers found hidden facets of the genre, exploiting realism and debunking myth in an attempt to make the category compliant to a contemporary audience. While many still can’t cotton to its outlaw glorification and “violence answers everything” ideal, the creative forces in filmmaking still try to revive its fading fortunes. With a few startling examples – Unforgiven, for example – the horse opera is still considered an artifact of a less sophisticated entertainment era.
Perhaps that explains the lax, almost lost quality of Andrew Dominik’s fascinating if flawed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not really an oater in the traditional sense, yet restricted by the undying spirit of the wild, wild west, this is a biopic as a beautiful collection of landscapes, a project where vistas and visuals are far more impactful than characters or individual interaction. Instead of giving us reasons to care about the title icons, people who’ve remained intrinsic to the pulp culture collective since fading from physical view, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is hollowed out history. It’s a Ken Burns documentary without all the style and none of the substance. It’s one big long love letter to the notion of a nation without laws, and a stunning example of overreaching aesthetic dismantling a rather decent idea.
Our tale begins with Ford trying to join Jesse’s gang. Brother Frank (a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Sam Shepard) rejects the oddball kid outright, but the celebrated criminal finds his fawning…interesting. After a set piece train robbery, the boys disband, heading to safe houses in and around the Midwest. James meets back with his family, while the Fords - Robert and his older sibling Charley (an excellent Sam Rockwell) – head to their sister’s farm. There, they get involved in various personal problems, including unnecessary romantic relationships, conspiracies against Jesse, and back door deals with local law enforcement. Naturally, James finds out about these transgressions, and uses his own brand of six shooter justice to right the wrongs. As the Fords continue to befriend the seemingly psychotic criminal, it’s clear that James is planning something sinister for his compadres. It is up to Robert to act, even if it means destroying everything he’s ever cared about.
At the core of director Dominik’s take on this material (by way of Ron Hansen’s novel) is the idea that fame always has its flunkies, that even a notorious murderer and criminal like Jesse James would have at least one glorified groupie on the range who’d desperately want to emulate him. Our fanatic is the noted weakling Ford, a spineless sycophant with as many nervous tics as personal problems. He’s an obsessive, a stalker in an era where such menace was begged off as eccentricity, or ignorance. By the time this film finishes setting up the last act killing, it’s not a surprise. Instead, it becomes a natural extension of our current tabloid take on such matters. Ford may seem forced into acting – he’s supposedly saving himself and his brother from James’ unpredictable nature – but his is a response to rejection, not a matter of actual self defense.
All of this could make a fine film, especially one that never looses its focus to feature unnecessary supporting characters and insignificant subplots. But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost all ancillary players and narrative asides. Whenever we are introduced to a new member of the gang, or walk into the home of a distant relative, Dominik disembarks from the story at hand to bring us backstory, historical context, and expositional explanations. It’s like listening to a lecture by an old time recreationist, complete with a vernacular heavy narration that frequently undermines the mood. No matter how much we enjoy the company of Charley Ford, Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, or Ed Miller, we spend way too much time with them.
And then there is the acting. When it comes to supporting performances, everyone is aces. They bring a nice level of authenticity, never coming across as too contemporary or overly modern. But our stars are scattered to say the least. As James, Brad Pitt decides to invest his killer with a Zen sense of nature, as well as a weird sort of insomnia that only arrives when the story needs him awake. He’s like Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys on personality altering chemicals and a couple of quarts of moonshine. It’s a take that kind of grows on you, as well as a Method maneuver that never really pays off. As Ford, however, Casey Affleck is quirkiness incarnate. When we first meet him, his line readings resemble the disconnected ramblings of a borderline imbecile. His toothy grin and stammering, starstruck qualities are downright creepy. But when viewed in contrast to what Pitt is producing, a sly symbiosis occurs. It’s as if, by allowing his actors to go in totally different directions with their interpretations, Dominik is trying for a single three dimensional whole. And he nearly achieves it.
What he does get right, however, are the gorgeous cinematic compositions that give The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford its optical splendor. While there are rumors swirling around the production of interference from studios and stars (Pitt is an executive here, as well as Ridley Scott), it’s clear than Dominik has an eye for pretty pictures. From the dynamic night robbery with its snow-covered, near monochrome menace to a stunning shot of Jesse riding down a hill toward a guilty co-conspirator’s shack, there are enough evocative sequences here to stir even the most hardened motion picture heart. Yet they continue in the service of a narrative that never comes alive, that fails to fulfill the story’s numerous possibilities, and trudges along tentatively, only to go on for another half hour after the finale.
Oddly enough, the epilogue material is indicative of what’s right – and very wrong – with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When we learn of the conflicting feelings toward Ford, of how James’ unusual fame produced a clear cut dichotomy between people who loved his criminal bravado and those who suffered at his hands, it’s a fascinating bit of history. Likewise, the stage show where the killing was recreated nightly, plus the eventual backlash that caused Ford to go into hiding, are similarly evocative. Soon however, we realize where the flaw in the film exists. When dealing with James and Ford, their unintentional battle of wills intertwined with their individual shortcomings and psychosis, we get the outline for something truly remarkable. But when viewed in response to the rest of the movie proffered, the reaction is far more muted.
Fact is, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have been better. It should have followed the real focus on the story and done away with at least an hour of subplotting. Good work by genial actors just can’t make up for a lack of direction or an overreliance on atmosphere. Director Andrew Dominik gives great mood, and when paired with the right project, the results should be astounding. But this movie is a western for those not steeped in the genres generic trappings, who see majesty in the mundane and brilliance in the disconnected and dour. The only thing epic about this otherwise slight film is its ambition. You can tell that everyone involved thought they were creating a post-modern masterpiece. What we end up with, however, is a collection of pretty canvases without a single gallery conceit to hold them all together. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been heroic. As it stands, it’s nothing but scattered.