I’m old enough to be able to remember from my childhood my grandmother, born a few years after the death of Jesse James in 1882, singing the ballad she must have learned in her own childhood whose refrain goes, “But that dirty little coward/That shot Mr. Howard/Has laid poor Jesse in his grave.” It was my first experience of a genuine folk hero. Of course, we don’t have such things anymore. We have celebrities instead. The long title of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, preserved by director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from the novel by Ron Hansen, is meant to call to our minds the Victorian melodrama and ballad that the event it names was turned into, but it is misleading. The movie is not really inspired by the sensibility of the 19th century but by the celebrity culture of the 21st.
In fact, it should really be called “The Ballad of Bob Ford.” Young Casey Affleck plays the cowardly “assassin” — a title meant to be suggestive of his victim’s celebrity rather than his notoriety — as a sort of Mark David Chapman, a fan whose obsession with his idol tips over the brink of sanity and finally induces him to kill the one he loves. Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, by contrast, remains a curiously shadowy figure, obviously both charismatic and dangerous but not actually very interesting. The story is that Mr Pitt, a native of Missouri like the James brothers, has long been a fan of the romantic outlaw. If so, perhaps he’s the real stalker here. “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Jesse says to Bob in the movie when his worshiper’s attentions begin to creep him out. It’s a question that it might occur to the audience to ask of Mr Pitt himself. The awe he feels on assuming the character of his hero appears to have paralyzed him.
It might have helped if the movie had included a bit more action instead of spending so much time — and, at 160 minutes, it is an hour too long — on leisurely atmospheric takes of distant figures set against vast and poetic prairie landscapes. The look of the film appears to have been heavily influenced by John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) — except that lots of things happen in The Searchers and lots of things don’t happen in The Assassination of Jesse James. Only one of the James gang’s celebrated acts of banditry is depicted in it, and that seems to have been the last one — the robbery of a train at Blue Cut, Missouri, in October of 1881. It’s not an especially exciting train robbery for the viewer. No one is hurt in it except for a clerk who is badly beaten by Jesse. When he is about to finish the man off with his six-gun, he is stopped by another member of the gang, Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt).
“Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do, Ed,” says Jesse menacingly. But he then walks away and, seemingly, allows the clerk to live.
Ed is later — much later — the only man we actually see Jesse kill, though a voiceover tells us that he was responsible for at least 17 murders. Obviously, in order to preserve our sympathy for a man it sees as a prototype of the rock star, the movie has to play down its hero’s less attractive qualities, including his Confederate loyalties — the ostensible reason for his outlawry — and his tendency to mayhem. But neither, equally obviously, can it allow us to forget the latter. A sense of danger is a big part of what makes him a rock star. That’s why Brad Pitt’s stock-in-trade here is understated menace. Everybody in the gang seems scared to death of him and we, too, wait eagerly for the explosion of violence that will confirm his reputation.
It never comes. Or it comes only on the periphery of the main story and in ways meant to suggest comic absurdity rather than the sublimity promised by the hero-bandit who is offered for our admiration. He remains a largely static figure, almost an icon of the suffering Christ who even seems to will his own death at the hands of his Judas, Bob Ford. In other words, the movie is itself an act of celebrity-worship — as is also suggested by the casting of James Carville as the governor of Missouri, Tom Crittenden. The only supposedly deep question that interests it is that of why Bob Ford doesn’t inherit Jesse’s celebrity, as he expects to do, when he kills him — rather as Prince Hal promises in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV Part One” to win Hotspur’s honor for himself by killing him. But that’s not a question the answer to which is really very hard to figure out.
The movie is also marred by its having cut to the bone the parts of Frank James (Sam Shepard) and Bob’s confidante, Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel), who don’t have ten minutes of screen time between them. On the plus side, however, I can’t fail to mention the terrific performance of Sam Rockwell as the cringing Charley Ford, Bob’s brother, and the haunting, minimalist score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis which almost makes the movie’s vast vacant spaces serve the purpose that its makers want them to serve, which is to identify the legend of Jesse James with the landscape of America. But it doesn’t strike me as the kind of music that would have appealed to the historical Jesse James.
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