When Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) first appears onscreen in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he looks the part of the cold-blooded killer. With his stovepipe hat, silent-film villain's whey-faced complexion, and seamlessly mortared, predatory row of top teeth, Ford evokes the angel of death so strongly that you half-expect the film to end before anyone has finished a plate of beans or saddled a horse. But soon it's apparent that Ford would have trouble killing a fly; he's actually the meek, overenthusiastic specter of celebrity worship — just a drooling, dream-addled fan of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) who has come not to bury the gunslinger but to join him in one last midnight ride.
Eventually, Ford joins the James gang, and after following James around much of Missouri, he ultimately fulfills the duty implicit in the film's title. To his credit, though, writer/director Andrew Dominik takes his slow, sweet time getting there, and that's one of his film's many triumphs. The Assassination of Jesse James is both a meditative, haunting Western and a smashing example of inspired genre work.
Dominik's wordy screenplay, which achieves a kind of mock-Cormac McCarthy eloquence, enhances the humdrum story's pulpy, mythical qualities. Dick Liddle (a superb Paul Schneider), one of James' hoodlums, avers that "You can hide things in vocabulary," and unusual words such as "vouchsafe," "palaver," "auguries," and "personage" tumble from Hugh Ross' narration. This imaginative diction spills over into the characters too. When Liddle is shot in the leg, he describes his wound to Ford as "full of torment, Bob. Thanks for askin'."
This ornate vocabulary does indeed hide the basic emotion that unifies all these characters: fear. Worn to the stumps by bad weather and paranoia, these men feel exposed everywhere. As Pitt plays him, Jesse James is little different from his bumbling cohorts. He's scared and hunted. However, he's a much more experienced and merciless killer and that is a significant asset.
Jesse James' photography is also a significant asset for the film. Camera man Roger Deakins, who shot several of the Coen Brothers' films, achieves some magnificent pictorial effects by shooting many scenes with the most meager light sources — lanterns, candles, sunlight, stars, reflected snow. In one ironic lighting decision, a single outhouse candle dwindles to blackness as Liddle prepares to dip his wick in a willing adulteress (Kailin See).
The last 20 minutes of the film explore the much larger irony of Ford's own fate after he shoots James in the back (an act played out in the film like a staged ritual even when it happens the first time.) As the years go by, Jesse James, bandit and murderer, is fondly recalled as an American hero, while Ford grows more reclusive and insecure as his hate mail piles up. Ford's cruel destiny is thus to live out a genre axiom. The success of the film is the failure of Ford's own life: the how is much more important than the what.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Opening Friday, October 26th