In 1983, author Ron Hansen crafted a novel that ought to be considered mandatory reading for anyone fancying himself or herself attracted to the western as a genre and as a conveyor of essential truth. A Shakespearean account of betrayal in the old west, Hansen’s masterful sketches revealed deep and vibrant characters that transcended the nickel-book mythology into which they inevitably found themselves woven.
Twenty-four years later, filmmaker Andrew Dominik has accomplished a visual telling of that story as close to cinematic perfection as you could hope for. At the risk of sensationalism, I would call “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” the most accomplished work of moving imagery committed to film in nearly a decade. It is a staggering piece of true cinematic art.
The tale is as simple as it is complex, a trait shared by the greatest of western storytelling. Jesse James (Brad Pitt), the infamous outlaw of old, found himself the subject of obsession, fascination and idolatry by the young and ambitious Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). A yearning to touch greatness, or even reside in similar territory, drove Ford to seek out acceptance amongst James and his gang of outlaws in the waning years of the 19th century. A lethal combination of angst, envy, hubris and government sanctioning brought Ford to a place on April 3, 1882 where firing a bullet into the back of James’ skull seemed the logical course of action. And so it was.
Dominik and director of photography Roger Deakins have framed the legend of James in some instances by blurring the outer edges of the frame. Perhaps the intention is to convey a legend we know little about, given the cloud of mythology that surrounds actuality. But there are depths of reality here that speak to some fairly grandiose truths, and that, I think, is what Dominik is driving at.
With all the sensationalized accounts, all of the larger-than-life depiction, there is true poetry in the life and death of the outlaw. And there is true poetry in his assassin’s regret. Myth is born out of realism, and Andrew Dominik, an Australian, seems to understand the American western better than any contemporary, and many who paved the way before him.
Brad Pitt has never been better, giving a performance that internalizes more than it externalizes. James’ untold fire simmers behind Pitt’s baby blue eyes, but the actor manages to be as affecting in his affability as he is in his cerebral terrorism. The downward spiral of the movie is one of presentiment and suspicion, and Pitt’s conveyance of a paranoid, sickened soul can be unsettling at times.
This is the kind of portrayal that might be lost in the awards shuffle if it didn’t come from a marquee player, but if Warner Bros. wanted it bad enough, the studio could secure a definite slot for Pitt amongst the Best Actor hopefuls at season’s end. But that is the only awards talk I’ll afford. This film is beyond all of that, in my view.
Offering a raspy and clumsy syntax from the mouth of a pasty, nubile face, Casey Affleck steers the ship for the most part. His Robert Ford is despicable to a point, but genuine sympathy takes hold here and there. It is really a roller-coaster of emotions as far as audience connectivity goes, but the actor more than manages. As creepy and “willy”-giving as Ford is, Affleck gifts the character with a magnetic quality that can’t be ignored. It’s a definitive portrayal of youth misunderstood and, ultimately, regretfully reckless.
The rest of the ensemble fills out accordingly. Sam Rockwell gives one of his best performances to date as Ford’s older brother, Charley, guilt-stricken at the end of his life for his complicity in the assassination of Jesse James. Paul Schneider, one of the screen’s newest and most promising young actors, takes the role of misfit Dick Liddel to acceptably breezy territory, while Sam Shepard has an all-too-brief stint in the film’s first act as the other half of the James boys, Frank. Elsewhere, Jeremy Renner and especially “Deadwood’s” Garret Dillahunt provide stable and affecting portrayals.
Dominik has enlisted the use of a narrator on his film, a choice that might at first seem an irritant. Indeed, Hugh Ross’ voice has a high-pitched quality that almost resembles the speaker on Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen).” But soon enough the cadence settles into a near-lullaby, the perfect audible guide through cerebral, complex territory.
In hindsight, the uniqueness of the film’s pacing – keeping the narration in mind – is one of the most deliberate and ultimately welcome aspects of the film. I could literally have watched this play out for hours on end.
Technically, “Jesse James” is a marvel. The art department detail from Patricia Norris (behind both production and costume design) is something to behold, and it marries itself considerably to Roger Deakins’ painterly cinematography. Some of the shots Deakins and Dominik have envisioned are immediately iconic. This is one of the most beautiful films of the year.
Aurally, the work exhibits an array of layers equally affecting. Gunfire has a bombastic and genuine quality that recalls Kevin Costner’s realistic use of sound in “Open Range.” But a certain sense of terror, of actually being there, rests in the soundtrack of “Jesse James.”
And the score, a beautiful violin construction from Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis, is divine in its simplicity. Bad Seeds front man Nick Cave pops up, by the way, belting the classic “The Ballad of Jesse James” in a saloon near the film’s end.
There is plenty to be said of what Andrew Dominik has accomplished, and for my part, I think I’ve said it. But while considering the opinions of others within a film review isn’t my usual course of action, I have to be clear that anyone considering this film “pretentious” just doesn’t have a clear understanding of what that word means. There isn’t a whiff of pretension on the effort. It is as straight-forward as they come, as simple and defined and considerate of the western genre’s applications as I’ve ever seen. Like Ang Lee’s equally maligned (in some quarters) “Lust, Caution,” Dominik’s film takes its time and marinates, but it never once dabbles or wanders in unnecessary territory.
This is assured and confident craftsmanship.