“I go on journeys out of my body, look at my red hands and my mean face, and I wonder about that man who’s gone so wrong. I been becoming a problem to myself.” Late in Andrew Dominik’s languorous masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (in national release), Jesse James painfully, vulnerably opens up to Robert Ford, his soon-to-be killer. James’s problem is the realisation of his paranoia and cruelty, his growing awareness - which the film has been charting - of the disjunction between his propensity for violence and his desire to let it all rest. Weighed down by the dime-novel mythology that surrounds him, he’s becoming connected, thread by tantalising thread, to his disconnectedness.
In this radical revisiting of a well-worn Western legend (the James Gang, the Ford brothers), Brad Pitt plays Jesse James as both haunted mystic and manic-depressive, and the result is hypnotic. It’s the best thing he’s ever done, although as a sensual rather than intellectual actor, he may not even consciously know why or how. The brilliance starts with Dominik’s powerful script (from the novel by Ron Hansen); Pitt’s stroke of genius was simply in agreeing to the project. What makes him, like Steve McQueen three decades before, the biggest star of his generation is, beyond all the surface charisma and bravado, the deep sadness behind his eyes. Dominik has understood this perfectly, and made the film into a kind of Greek tragedy. It’s not about shoot-’em-ups or suspense - even the title lets us know where it’s heading - but rather about a god-like figure who falls from the heights of a terrible violence in a way both calamitous and pre-ordained, the story rolling majestically towards James’s irrevocable destiny. The film is best viewed, in fact, as a two-hour-and-40-minute poem about male anxiety, ageing and mortality. And there’ll be those who know from that sentence that Jesse James is not for them. Certainly in the US it has divided opinion; a common response is that it’s an hour too long. To me, there’s not a second that’s misplaced, since this kind of rare, all-encompassing cinematic beauty, where style and substance and form and function merge seamlessly, works at its own resolute pace.
Not including the 15-minute epilogue that follows Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) in the aftermath of the assassination, the film concerns itself only with the final six months or so of Jesse James’s life. We open in Missouri in 1881, in the midst of preparations for the Blue Cut train robbery. James banters casually with some of the other members of the gang, including Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Bob Ford, the baby of the group and desperate for attention, wanders off to make himself known to James’s aloof older brother, Frank (Sam Shephard). “Folks sometimes think of me as a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make,” he says. “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things, Mr James. I got qualities that don’t come shining through right at the outset. But you give me a chance, I’ll get the job done.” Frank James can barely suppress his disdain and dismisses the nincompoop out of hand. The tone is set for Ford’s escalating series of humiliations through the film. Affleck plays to a tee the journey from simmering resentment to murderous rage; he is brilliant, and should be an Oscar contender for the performance. (The supporting actors, too, are without exception excellent.)
During the robbery, a train clerk is foolish enough to challenge Jesse James’s authority. Gazing down at the blood pooling around the man’s head, having pistol-whipped him to the ground, James seems like some perplexed deity, sickened and stricken by what he wreaks. Rarely, if ever, do Westerns concern themselves with characters undergoing an identity crisis; they’re more often about resoluteness and virility versus landscape and evil. This one signals early that it’s going to a very different place: the valley of the shadow of death, one man’s ritualistic embrace of the void.
Later that night Bob Ford shares a cigar with James on the porch, and James takes notice of him for the first time. “I can’t believe I woke up this morning,” says Ford, “wondering if my daddy would loan me his overcoat, and here it is, just past midnight, and I’ve already robbed a railroad train, and here I am sitting in a rockin’ chair, chatting with none other than Jesse James.”
“Yeah,” drawls James, already a lightly mocking tone in his voice. “It’s a wonderful world.”
Ford pulls from his pocket a press clipping about the infamous James, marvelling at how the media portrays things so differently from the reality. James waves it away. But he is fascinated by the young man’s desperation and adulation, and studies him. There is a sense in which at this moment, so early in the narrative, James chooses Ford to be the vehicle of his delivery from pain. To read the film this way, to go with the flow of its grand arcs of predestination, is exhilarating, because in so doing we are freed from certain conventions and expectations of plot escalation - freed from cliché - and plunged into an parable of betrayal, complicity, surrender and suicide-by-other. To choose not go down that path, on the other hand, may well be to find yourself watching a film that is an hour too long.
This scene also signals the onset of the second realm of enquiry in the film: the growing cult of celebrity. The dime novel was the proto-internet, and Jesse James was notorious - part of the cultural consciousness, in a tabloid sense - for a good decade before his death. Like Paris Hilton, he was alive and actively going about his business at the same time that his mythologization was becoming one with, or part of, America’s mythology of the West - Hollywood being the twenty-first century equivalent of the frontier. (Unlike Hilton, though, James never did jail time.) Robert Altman explored this border zone between history, memory and celebrity with affection in his rambling Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), with Paul Newman as the ageing Western hero turned late-nineteenth-century showbiz celebrity. In Jesse James, Bob Ford keeps a little box of James memorabilia under his bed: dime novels and newspaper clippings about the James Gang, even the mask he himself wore in the Blue Cut robbery. For Ford, these items have the power of holy keepsakes. In an extraordinary scene, he’s teased dreadfully about the box; later, one of the gang dies in large part for taking part in the teasing.
Jesse James is only too aware of the ridiculousness of all this. “I can’t figure it out,” he says to Ford at one point. “You wanna be like me? Or you wanna be me?” Ever so skilfully, scene after astonishing scene, Dominik steers these two towards their enmeshed destinies.
Affleck, all sly eyes and breaking adolescent voice, plays Ford with a mix of sullen awkwardness and star-struck yearning. He wants to have the heroic attributes with which Jesse is credited in those novels, and he will come to believe there’s only one act by which he will gain them. Meanwhile, in the journey through Ford’s ritual humiliations, James’s treatment of him will veer from amused compassion to pitiless cruelty. It’s as if he goads the young hero-worshipper into killing him. There’s a pivotal and chilling scene around a dinner table in which the other men mock Ford for the way he used to compare himself to James. Ford is reluctantly coaxed into revealing his list of similarities. “Well, it is interesting,” he tells James, “the many ways you and I overlap and what-not.” They’re both youngest children, both 5’8”, both blue-eyed. “Between Charley and me there’s another brother, Wilbur here, with six letters in his name. Between Frank and you was another brother, Robert, also with six letters. My Christian name is Robert, of course.” And on he goes, digging himself deeper in shame under Jesse James’s inscrutable gaze. From here, seeing the beginnings of a murderous intent in Ford’s dreamy eyes, you know there’ll be no turning back until a blood sacrifice has been made.
Part of Andrew Dominik’s particular genius, as he moves this tale inexorably forward, is to make the rising menace so gripping and the weary tenderness so moving. This is the Old West as both timeless blood struggle and end-stage death-gasp, a desolate landscape almost entirely devoid of women. Yet if nostalgia has a colour, it would be this pale golden light of the prairies, captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins. There’s a loving homage to Terrence Malick’s great Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). The isolation of the frontier is rendered in almost painterly fashion: there’s a recurring motif of landscape and character framed through windows and doors, a malign sense of the danger of arrivals. The elegiac soundtrack, scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and dominated by an ominous cello drone, compounds this.
Rectitude being the traditional focus of the Western - even Clint Eastwood, in Unforgiven (1992), doesn’t take his character beyond that trademark arctic angst - what Dominik does that is truly genre-breaking is to punch through the veneer into the frailty buried beneath. Dominik’s - Pitt’s - version of Jesse James is braver, more exploratory; it is easier to play, as Eastwood did, a decent man who is frozen than it is to play a sociopath who begins to tap his deep well of unhappiness.
Thus there’s an odd continuity from Dominik’s first film, Chopper (2000), which is also about an unhinged killer with a vulnerable side. In that film, Chopper narrates to the police his version of a shooting, and we see what he is describing. Later, he changes his version of events, but what we see plays out differently again. Chopper loves to gleefully revise his history; it is all a deranged game for him. In Jesse James, James needs to believe his lies in order to remain psychologically intact - albeit remotely so. In one scene, he explains to Charley Ford how he killed Ed Miller (Garrett Dillahunt) in self-defence, yet the action that plays out is entirely different from the story he tells. He switches into the third person when the lies begin to diverge wildly. (“So. Ed and Jesse. They argue on the road.”) Of the two, Jesse James and Chopper, it is the former who is the true lost soul. Chopper is capable of redemption but doesn’t want it; James wants it but is incapable of finding it, since his dissociative personality seems to have hardened into its final form, a place where both sadness and self-disgust might be possible - but not, in any real sense, change.
His paranoia intensifies; some of it is irrational, some justified. He cries after punching the daylights out of a teenage boy in his search for “information”. It is tawdry, and terribly trying, looking after the loose ends. Later, standing out in the middle of a frozen lake, the vast engulfing waters beneath him - an elegant metaphor for the whole film - he wonders aloud to Charley Ford about suicide. “I tell you one thing, that’s for certain. You won’t fight dying once you’ve peeked over to the other side. You’d no more want to go back to your own body than you’d want to spoon up your own puke.” To this man worn out by violence, there is nothing left but death.
For Bob Ford to assist in that, he will have to undergo a complete reversal. Late in the film, as the big day approaches, his brother, Charley, gets the jitters as Bob becomes ever more cavalier: “You think it’s all made up don’t you? You think it’s all yarns and newspaper stories.” “He’s just a human being,” replies Bob, who has by now largely dismantled the myth of the invincible man. Charley Ford knows otherwise: just how deeply Jesse James is a man to fear. In Dominik’s version of the James legend, Bob Ford only attains glory because James has already left this world, in all but body - and that is soon to follow.
Afterwards, Ford must deal with the trappings of his newfound celebrity, as he travels the country re-enacting the killing to theatre audiences. “By his own approximation,” a narrator informs us, “Robert Ford assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever so often or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.” Elsewhere we are told: “More people could correctly identify him than they could the president of the United States. He was as renowned at 20 as Jesse was after 14 years of grand larceny.”
The film might well have ended with James’s death, but Dominik pushes on into electrifying territory with this coda. If there was any doubt before, by now it is clear that this is as much the story of the betraying minion as the fallen god. And while Jesse James may not have found redemption, except insofar as the peace afforded by death might offer it, Bob Ford may well be redeemed, through his coming to terms with regret.
However it fares in its cinema release, this is a film that will be revered as a classic for decades to come, along with the epic poetry of Kurosawa and Malick. In my opinion it is the finest Western ever, including both old school (High Noon, The Searchers) and new school (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Unforgiven). Its elliptical narrative follows no Hollywood formula; Warner Brothers hated the film, which was probably only financed because Pitt loved the script so much that he did the project for next to nothing. Somehow, Dominik largely stood his ground, resisting changes. No doubt many qualities make up great directors, but surely this kind of stubbornness is one of them. We can only assume that the problem with the studio executives is that, as the character Dick Liddil says early in the film, “Poetry don’t work on whores.” The rest of us should not wait for the DVD; better to be subsumed by this film in all its wide-screen glory.
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