Steeped in the lyrical fatalism of that last great decade for the western, the ‘70s, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford owes a debt to myriad spiritual ancestors. And yet there’s something particularly modern about its approach to the doomed relationship between infamous bank robber and murderer Jesse James and his Judas-like accomplice Robert Ford. Throughout, Dominik indulges in a level of self-consciousness and artifice so pronounced that his film stands not as a historical record or even a slice of neo-western revisionism so much as a contemplative mood piece-by-way-of-character study intent on examining the nature of hero worship, capturing the tumultuousness of the American West’s transition from gritty reality to fabled past, and deconstructing the era’s myths even as it upholds them. As with 2007’s other great American work, David Fincher’s Zodiac, Dominik’s triumph focuses on an iconic criminal from the country’s past, and the way in which that personage, refracted through the media’s filter, epitomized our love-hate rapport with fame. Moreover, it shares with Fincher’s film a detail-oriented fascination with procedure, albeit not that of the police or the newspaper, but of fate itself, the director languorously, purposefully depicting the titular act as the culmination of a carefully arranged series of events that could lead to only one, fateful outcome.
Based on Ron Hansen’s novel, Jesse James is a movie’s movie, a knowingly synthetic construct that relishes its every artificiality, from the literary narration that regularly aids the narrative to Roger Deakins’s expressionistic cinematography, which prefers fast-forward glimpses of rolling clouds, golden hues and woody textures, studied compositions surrounded by smeary edges, and scenes that rhapsodically link the mysterious, larger-than-life James with his natural surroundings. Dominik’s aestheticism is deliberately showy, making clear the director’s upfront epic aspirations. Aside from providing (along with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s elegiac, if a tad overcooked, score) a suitably gloomy, portentous ambiance for the action at hand, this approach is intimately in tune with the story’s belief that images are both untrustworthy and all-important. This portrait of the desperado as an ultimately knowable phantom—majestically posed against panoramas of sky, plains and smoke, and described as a man who stopped time when he walked into a room—contends that it was James’s romantic, quasi-magical celebrity that made him such a vital part of the West. Nonetheless, concurrently, Dominik strips away the dreamy reveries he erects around his central outlaw, revealing him to be not the Robin Hood of fanciful dime-store novels, but a volatile figure whose friendly disposition was colored by paranoia and matched by drop-of-the-hat ruthlessness.
Jesse James‘s dual sense of idolization and demystification is conveyed most directly via Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old driven by lifelong adoration of James’s (highly fictionalized) escapades to join his gang in Blue Cut, Missouri in 1881. “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things,” he proclaims when introducing himself to James’s elder brother Frank (Sam Shepard), to which Frank accurately responds, “You don’t have the ingredients.” From the outset, Ford is conceived as something of a prototypical celeb stalker, the soft-spoken youngest of three sons whose response to years of being picked on was to retreat into adoring bandit fantasies. Unlike his more straightforwardly dim older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), with whom he joins James’s crew, Ford is self-delusional to a fault. However, courtesy of Affleck’s mesmerizing performance—composed of gentle boasts, quiet seething in the face of ridicule, and barely internalized longing and grief—he’s not foolish so much as pitifully desperate, a beaten-down man immensely attracted to Wild West tall tales’ seductive promise of danger, freedom, and power. When he puffs out his chest upon killing comrade Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), the fervent craving for masculine respect, and even more than that, for dominion over life (his own, as well as others’), is urgently apparent.
Ford soon devolves into resentment and anger at the realization that his headline-fostered vision of James is far different than the man himself. And as it slowly unfolds, Jesse James reveals itself to be a story firmly rooted in determinism. After commencing, a la Zodiac, with a scene in which James displays his star-making criminal talents during a nocturnal train robbery, the film almost wholly eschews conventional genre principles in favor of unhurried snapshots of James and his gang—and during its middle section, it also largely ignores James and Ford altogether, turning its attention to the escapades of secondary criminal cohorts Wood Hite and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider, his smooth-talk laced with menace). These meticulously orchestrated diversions are tonally consistent with the overarching leisurely momentum, and as they progress, it also becomes apparent that they’re not mere superfluous asides but building blocks upon which Ford’s climactic murder is predicated. Their lasting impression is one of tragic inevitability, with the tragedy not James’s death or the subsequent disgrace that would plague Ford until his dying days, but rather the haunting realization that free will is a fallacy, that man’s actions are fundamentally a byproduct of a preordained set of circumstances.
Capricious, moody, and deranged, Brad Pitt’s James remains always a spectral, near-supernatural force prone to appearing and disappearing, as well as keenly anticipating threats to his safety and life. While the character lacks clarity as a whole, he’s riveting in the immediate moment, his small gestures and modulations in body language and gaze expressing the unspoken. After cracking the skull of a train employee who refuses to open a compartment’s safe, James (who seconds earlier had been cheerily dancing about) quickly recovers his partially visible mouth with his face scarf. It’s a gesture that, like his use of the third person during a later admission of cold-blooded murder, conveys his desire to maintain a barrier between himself and his less pleasant conduct. This internal dichotomy regularly, explosively rears its head, never more so than during an arresting scene in which a couch-reclining James—Ford, now his surrogate son, sitting at his feet playing with a toy—goes from sedately relaxing to swiftly placing a knife to the young man’s throat, only to then release him, cackle uproariously, and then, once Ford and Charley settle their nerves and join in his laughter, go silent, stare maliciously, and walk away.
“You can hide things in vocabulary,” says James gang member Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Jesse James demonstrates this, its conversations so layered with elliptical threats and menacing insinuations, with every statement’s true meaning hovering around mouths’ corners, that blunt articulations of theme (prime example: James telling Ford, “I don’t know if you want to be like me or be me”) are jarring. Any tendencies toward obviousness, however, are offset by Dominik’s graceful, metaphoric visuals, such as a shot of Ford gazing longingly into a lamp that, once James materializes in the background, casts the self-described “nincompoop” as a moth drawn perilously close to a burning flame. The sensuality alight in Ford’s eyes as he itemizes to James their personal similarities lends their bond an added amorous dimension, but the film’s true romance is eventually between Ford and his quixotic idea of James. And thus, when Ford splashes his face with water on the morning of his notorious murder, the image that flashes across his eyes is of the view from inside a coffin—a fleeting sight that speaks to his forthcoming deed as one of (figurative) suicide.
Ford doesn’t heed this portent, and in a prolonged one-year-later epilogue that recounts his and Charley’s activities in New York City, the story charts the consequences of such thoughtlessness. Staging a theatrical reenactment of James’s murder, the brothers drift apart as Ford become a national pariah. It’s here, and in the greedy sale of James’s corpse photos, that the film locates the means by which celebrity is roundly, hungrily exploited, as well as illustrates Americans’ preference for, to paraphrase John Ford, the legend over history. Scorned and wracked by regrets, Ford spends his last days in misery, and during this sad sequence, Dominik’s compassion for his pathetic protagonist is most explicit, epitomized by the director’s deeply empathetic use of freeze frames during Ford’s final moments—a stark contrast to the blunt, violent representation of James’s demise. That Jesse James, brazenly affected and acutely interested in investigating the notion of personal and collective myths, doesn’t resound with full, heartbreaking intensity until its climax and coda will likely prove too long a wait for those less enamored than Dominik with the seminal, plaintive, demanding westerns of Robert Altman and Terrence Malick, among others. To this impatience, the film has an apt reply, courtesy of Schneider’s Dick: “Poetry doesn’t work on whores.”