Director: Andrew Dominik
Viewed: From The Balcony
Oh what could have been.
Between the beautifully written script, the superb acting by both major and minor stars, the washed-out cinematography, and one of the saddest and most curious stories to come out of the great myth that was the American West, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been a classic; certainly the best movie of 2007, and maybe one of the best of the decade. Could have been.
Let's begin with the positives of a script (adapted by Dominik from the novel by Ron Hansen) that takes one of the biggest bad-asses in history and turns him into a confused, paranoid, and lonely madman. Those who go to the theater looking for shootouts and daring robberies will be sorely disappointed as the only holdup occurs in the beginning of the film, with Jesse and brother Frank leading a group of local misfits on a somewhat botched train robbery. Among this group, the titular Coward surprisingly turns out to be Jesse's most trusted companion and close friend, and the first 90 minutes is a wonderful (if somewhat slow) dance between Ford's admiration for James (at 19, he still reads the sensationalized stories about the James Boys) and James's skepticism and, eventual, baffling trust of Ford.
Since the title of the movie is a spoiler in itself, I don't mind saying that yes, at some point, Ford will betray James by shooting him in the back, but it is how this comes about that is the real surprise. Without going too far into it, it is clear that Jesse wanted to die, especially at the hands of one of his idolaters. Like Judas, Ford has to serve his master, even if it means killing him.
The assassination takes place at around the two-hour mark and at this point, the viewer is probably justified in thinking that the movie is over. Nope. Following the assassination the movie adds a half-hour coda that is among the most beautiful and sad 30 minutes in recent movie history, following Ford's eventual path, from his dramatic recreations of the murder itself (over 800 times!) and his eventual ridicule by society, to his own tragic and violent end. Ford had achieved the fame he always sought (we are told he was recognized by more people than President Grover Cleveland), but he sacrificed much of himself to do it.
Ford is played to perfection by Casey Affleck, in a role that draws often (but judiciously) on Affleck's reticence, crackling voice, and forlorn eyes. While Brad Pitt's James has the alert eyes that size-up the world in an instant, Affleck seems to be staring into an alternate reality, someplace beyond death. There is one scene where Ford is surrendering to the local sheriff and emerges with his hands up, looking like a ghost. He is unbelievably creepy (Frank notices this from the start) and spectral, and yet, sympathetic and approachable. It is a performance that will stay in your mind for a very long time.
Aside from Pitt, who is fine as James but distracting, the supporting crew if fantastic, featuring great turns by actors I knew (Sam Shepard as Frank James, Sam Rockwell as Ford's brother Charlie) and those who I had never heard of (Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt (looking sort of like Affleck in 30 years), and Paul Schneider as intermittent members of the gang). Mary-Louise Parker also appears as James's wife Zee, but it is a useless part, and you know Parker was only added to provide the inevitable scream.
So Sean, you may be asking why all of this does not combine to make a great movie. The problem as I see it was the director's decision to tell the story chronologically, which leaves the best part of the story - Ford's life after the assassination - until the end. I would have suggested that the movie start with the fallen Ford and his dramatic recreations and move through the back-story using flashbacks. So much of what happens during the long second act would have worked better if you had known where it was heading. Probably the three greatest scenes of the movie appear in the final half-hour and the movie just feels like it opens up after all of the claustrophobia of following Ford and James around. Additionally, while the supporting cast is great, there is far too much time spent on an incidental plot point involving James's cousin Wood Hite (Renner) and Dick Liddle (Schneider) in Kentucky. While it was fun to watch Wood and Dick (hee hee) bicker over a woman, the digression takes away momentum from the James/Ford story.
It is possible that I may see this movie again, and realize that it really is a classic, even if flawed. Just in preparation for the review, I've gone over the movie more than just about anyone I can remember. Part of the reason is the ambiguity of the film - I still don't really know what to think of James or Ford other than pure, heart-wrenching sadness - but it may be that the ending works well the way it is, and that a great final half hour can transform a merely very good previous two hours. However this movie does in the awards season, it will be remembered for some time, not only for Affleck's breakout performance and for the visual beauty of Dominik's camera, but for the completely original approach Dominik and Hansen take towards the dual tragedies of Jesse James and Robert Ford. Though James was, as one of his cronies says, "the only American other than Mark Twain known in Europe," it is clear that Ford's life as subject was equal to (or surpassing) the tragedy of James's life. The narrator of the story tells us in the opening shot that James had eyes that looked "as if he found creation more than he could accept" and it appears Ford had the same view of life. For both, the world was both more than they could handle and less than they could accept. It is to the credit of Dominik, Hansen, Affleck and (yes, even) Pitt that they created a world in which these two characters could have existed, even if it only lasts for 150 minutes in a dark theater.