The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Fordrecommended viewing

I want to be the bad guy
Andrew Dominik
Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider
The Setup: 
What the title says.

I had read a few tantalizing reviews saying that this movie was brilliant, comparing the directorial style to Terrence Malick, so I was curious to see it—except that it’s almost three hours. So I was probably going to let it pass by, but my friend wanted to see it and, strength in numbers, we moved in to bear it together.

We open with Casey Affleck as Robert Ford meeting Jesse’s brother Frank, asking him if he can join the gang. He says that he knows he comes off a little odd at first, but he believes he is a strong person inside and says “I honestly believe I am destined for great things.” Already in this scene we can see that Robert IS quite weird, seems dangerously dumb and unstable, and is probably the kind of person you want to avoid. Robert tells him to take off, but Jesse lets them ride along that night as they rob a train.

After the train robbery, Jesse lets Robert hang around a bit. At one point Jesse cuts off two snakes’ heads and watches as their headless bodies continue to writhe. Brad Pitt plays Jesse James as an old man—all of 34 in the movie—who already has his best years behind him, can no longer trust anyone, and is unsure how to ever get pleasure out of life again. I’ve never thought Pitt was bad—I think people hold his looks against him—but he truly is wonderful here, and for the first time I started picturing him acting in roles when in his 60s. Here his entire tone and expressions and gestures are so consistent and fully lived-in, he, like Affleck, is completely convincing and real from his first appearance on screen.

In here we’ve also noticed the style, which is very self-consciously evoking the photography—and our IDEAS about the photography—of the period. For example, several shots are blurred around the edges in the manner of a picture from a pinhole camera. Several critics have compared the director’s style to Terrence Malick, and yes, there are shots of wheat, but nowhere near the personification of nature that Malick evokes. Then again, I don’t think this director is trying to do that—his film is more about heroes and our idealized images of them versus their reality. In one of the film’s famous quotes James asks Ford “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to BE me?” We also know that Ford kept a box of penny novels about Jesse James under his bed, and find out that he saw similarities between himself and James. And please don’t forget his line about believing he is destined for great things. So he’s just dying to be Jesse’s best pal, and when that doesn’t happen, he might just become dangerously disappointed.

So it goes on. They’re all on the run, hiding out, always tense and paranoid. There are rumors that some of the group are conspiring to kill Jesse, which leads to a number of tense scenes of people hiding or narrowly escaping, and a great, great number of scenes of unbearable tension as everyone is laughing and pretending that everything s just fine and they’re all the best of buddies.

Eventually Robert and his brother accept the job to kill Jesse. Obligingly, he shows up and brings them in for one further robbery, although we can’t be sure if its real of he is just trying to draw them out. More scenes of tension ensue until the day of the big event. While Jesse is out, Robert goes into his room and lies in his bed and smells his clothes. Jesse comes home, makes a point of taking off his guns, and climbs a chair to dust off a picture. He sees Robert in the reflection, gun pointed at him, and Robert shoots him. It is done in such a way as to suggest that Jesse is essentially committing suicide via Robert.

But the movie doesn’t end there. It continues, with Robert and his brother enacting the killing on stage several thousand times [only a few are shown]. People start calling Robert a coward, and he doesn’t seem to take kindly to this. His brother becomes bitter and drunk. Robert too becomes a drunk, the legend of his cowardice following him wherever he goes. At last a man kills him. Before he dies, he says that he thought everyone would cheer him for killing James, but now he sees that everyone loved Jesse—like he once did—and he’s sorry he did it. A guy kills him, and the movie contrasts the way people mourned the death of James, but no one cared about Ford. The man who shot Ford was acquitted.

So pretty good, although also pretty long. Many people in my audience walked out. It’s never boring [if you can stand a little boring], but ultimately one has the feeling that 40 minutes could have been left on the floor without too much damage.

The movie itself, however, is quite good and leaves one to reflect on Ford’s immature ideals of heroism and need to be famous in his own right. When James, his idol, turns out to be just a guy, with several failings, and doesn’t recognize the specialness in Ford, we see Ford’s idealization turn to bitterness and wish to gain his notoriety by taking James out. The movie toys with just enough homoeroticism to give added depth to Ford’s yearning and transformation into hatred when James doesn’t recognize him as an equal and take him as a close partner. And while that’s all very interesting, it isn’t two hours and forty minutes worth of interesting.

My friend Howard, who I saw the movie with, has this whole theory about how this movie is a retelling of Marat/Sade, but since I am not familiar with that play, we'll let him tell it: "I was sort of describing the movie to Todd and I realized that it's a re-telling of Marat/Sade (which is actually entitled " "The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade" - dangerously close to the real title of this play and movie. It even has the bathtub scenes, questions of mental stability, the change of regime after an assassination, questions about crimes and criminality, myth-making, understanding your role in history, and dozens of other things." So there ya go. Maybe I can get Howard to elaborate on that and will include it here.

Ultimately, a good movie with great performances that is just a tad too long. Not at all a waste of time, but one might find one’s mind wandering to how it could be improved if they had to face a mutated race of super-spiders.

Should you watch it: 

If you have the patience for this sort of thing, and want to meditate on the ideal of the American hero and whatnot.