This mournful, measured, hauntingly beautiful neo-Western is the best movie I saw in 2007 and, in my opinion, one of the three or four best films of the new millennium. That said, it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. First of all, it is very long (nearly three hours). Second, it is not a traditional shoot-’em-up, driven by a “good guy versus bad guy” (or “bad guy versus worse guy”) plot. Third, save for the Blue Cut robbery it doesn’t have extended action sequences, though it does have several moments of shockingly realistic gunplay. And fourth, while scrupulously depicting the last few months of Jesse James’ life—from the James gang’s final train robbery at Blue Cut, Missouri, in September 1881 to the morning of April 3, 1882, when twenty-year-old Robert Ford put a .44 caliber bullet through the back of the outlaw’s head, as James dusted off a picture of a race horse hanging from the wall of his St. Joseph, Missouri, home—it isn’t only about America’s most famous bandit and one of America’s most notorious assassins. It is also about how history comes down to us in legend and the far less tidy, far more complicated way it unfolds in life.
In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, another film about the distance between the way things actually were and the way we would like for them to have been, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott famously tells Ransom Stoddard: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The Assassination of Jesse James prints both, and it does so with such freshness and acuity that it manages to bring the past to life while still preserving its distance and mystery.
A good deal of the movie’s power comes straight from the Ron Hansen novel (also titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) upon which it is based. Director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik has done a sensational job of adapting Hansen’s stately, meticulous, exquisitely evocative prose into voice-over narration (spoken feelingly by actor Hugh Ross). When before have you heard any western begin like this?
He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. Jesse installed himself in a lawn chair and smoked a cigar down in the evening as his wife wiped her pink hands on a cotton apron and reported happily on their two children. He went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers or merchants, calling himself a cattleman or commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept…
This is poetry, not movie-speak, and it wouldn’t work as supremely well in a film as it does on the page if Dominik hadn’t done something else as impressively well as the way he parsed Hansen’s prose. With the inestimable help of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (nominated for an Oscar here, for what is undoubtedly the finest work of his career), Dominik has found a visual style that precisely matches the pith and music of the narration.
By mixing pinhole effects (the earliest type of photography in which a photo is taken through a lensless pinhole, creating an image that is softly focused in its center and unfocused at its extremes) with sensational low-light and natural-light cinematography (the flickering candlelit scenes in Martha Bolton’s house or Major Hite’s mansion are surely high among the finest low-key work since Barry Lyndon), and ultra-sharp high-key compositions, Deakins and Dominik have found the cinematic means to make the legendary past that is their subject seem at once immediate and mythic—just as Hansen does with words in the novel.
Take the stunning nighttime Blue Cut robbery sequence. We’ve seen these things many times before in movies; indeed, the very first movie made in this country was The Great Train Robbery. But, folks, you’ve never seen a train robbery like this. From the moment the screeching, shuddering steam engine’s headlamps light up the fog around a bend in a hill, we know we are not revisiting a cliché of Western movies; we are being thrust into a legendary landscape that, just like the hooded farm boys of the James’ gang huddling in the elm trees, we’ve never seen before. The steam engine comes on like a raging beast, its huge piercing headlamp flooding through the dark September woods, its brakes groaning demonically and shedding Catherine Wheel sparks that light up the masked bandits in the bare elms. We feel the awe and terror of the boys in the woods; for most of them (outside the Jameses) this is an entirely new experience. At the same time, we can’t help feeling that we are seeing an iron monster tearing through the cut in the hill—something incarnated by the soulless powers of capital and industry—the wild progress of which can only be halted by the grit and daring of the single outlawed ex-Confederate soldier standing commandingly, eagerly, and (as we see in close-up) ominously on the blockade of logs and boulders that will bring this beast to a standstill. This is iconic filmmaking—fresh, original, bravura filmmaking—that will, I promise, haunt you with its poetry and power.
Indeed, we are shown many things in The Assassination of Jesse James that we’ve seldom or never seen before in movies—the way that clouds or curtains flapping in a breeze suddenly block sunlight streaming through an open window, the way the shadow of a chair moves with the movement of the sun through brilliant, featureless patches of daylight on a wooden floor, the way the ripple of nineteenth-century window glass adds a watery distortion to the world outside. We hear things afresh, too. Wind and weather blow through the movie from start to close. The winter sequences, where Jesse and Dick Liddel visit the Ford homestead and Jesse pays his fateful visit to Ed Miller’s dilapidated farm, are I think the best of their kind I’ve ever seen, suffused, once again, with just the right qualities of sunlight and stormlight and whistling wind. The entire film is flooded with light and sound used to exquisite effect and to make an exquisite point—that even in the past, time passes inexorably, and with its passing come reckonings and judgments and, then, history.
All of this poetry, as remarkable as it is, wouldn’t affect us so deeply if Dominik hadn’t teased extraordinarily complex and moving performances from his actors. Brad Pitt is wonderful as the fearsome, haunted, haunting Jesse James (Pitt won the Golden Lion for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival—and he deserved it, though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences didn’t see fit to nominate him for its award). His James is far removed from any other we have seen in the movies (and Jesse James has been portrayed almost as many times in the movies as Jesus Christ). This is a man capable of shooting a friend whom he suspects has betrayed him in the back (as he himself will be shot in the back), who can bludgeon a helpless railroad clerk nearly to death for not bowing to his will, who is so dangerous and so paranoid about betrayal that his very laughter rings harsh, false, and menacing. And yet this is also a man who truly loves his wife and children, who stares into his grisly reflection in a frozen lake and contemplates suicide, who beats a child and then weeps over what he has done, and who looks at his “red hands and mean face and wonders about that man that’s gone so wrong.”
Casey Affleck, who plays Robert Ford (and was, thank God, nominated for an Academy Award, although he won’t win it [and didn't--this was written before the ceremonies]), is every bit as good as Pitt, in a part (almost a counterpart) that is just as complex. We watch him change from a callow, hero-worshipping kid with a burning desire to be accepted by Jesse and to share in his bandit celebrity, to something very like a rejected suitor, made sport of and deeply distrusted by the man he once idolized. We see love turn into disappointment, disgust, and anger—friendship into bare tolerance, fearful alliance, and then deadly opportunity. And when Ford, himself beset by mortal danger, seizes that opportunity and earns his fifteen minutes of fame by killing “the most famous man in America,” we see it all quickly go bad. As he admits to a lover at the end of the film, he thought the world would applaud when he killed Jesse James. But the world didn’t.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn't merely a meticulous recreation of the Border States of the 1880s and of the last months of the life of Jesse James (and, after that, in its long, lyrical, ultimately heartbreaking epilogue, of the "coward" Robert Ford), it is a profound and profoundly affecting meditation on how the meaning of the past gradually solidifies around one set of footprints while all the myriad others are blown away. The Assassination of Jesse James—which isn't so much an assassination as the inevitably violent end of a man ensnared by the fatality of being "Jesse James," followed by the short-lived ascension to celebrity of his killer, who then is himself all-too-quickly ensnared in the fatality of being "Robert Ford"—is, I think, a genuinely great movie that tells us something sad, teasing, and true about the way history is spun from the blinding whirl of time and ambitious men.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Jon Valin