Fine revisionist Western
‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford‘ is a thoughtful and atmospheric film about the American outlaw myth. A careful and occasionally brutal revisionist western in the mould of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece ‘Unforgiven‘, Andrew (‘Chopper‘) Dominik’s epic has been crafted with a painstaking, sometimes self-consciously meticulous eye. Like Eastwood’s Oscar winner, ‘The Assassination …’ aims to debunk some of the Western’s myths, from the notional romantic hero of the train robber, to the casual violence that characterised the genre. The violence in this film is bloodily visceral, erupting from a deeply inhospitable landscape populated by dirty, sickly and paranoid men.
The edge of realism is offset by the striking and often impressionistic realising of the bleak American landscape. There are no triumphant gallops through Monument Valley, just pneumonia-inducing frozen hillsides. In a way, the director’s great care in rendering his characters so emotionally and physically numb – enhanced by a liberal use of longeur - make it a pretty chilly film to watch. ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ is an engaging work nonetheless, although the slightly verbose voiceover – probably culled directly from Ron Hansen’s book of the same name – is clunky and portentious. Often describing things that can be easily deduced on screen, its po-faced superfluousness rather jars. Nevertheless, Brad Pitt’s menacing take on Jesse James – akin to that of paranoid mob boss who rules with fear – sustains a creeping tension that fuels this slow-paced movie. His paranoia is portrayed as a kind of contagious infection that slowly kills off his gang following their final heist, insinuating itself between friends and brothers. Casey Affleck is particularly good as the effeminate and sycophantic Robert Ford, who has idolised the Jesse James myth since boyhood and latches himself onto the James gang like a besotted groupie. However, Jesse grooms his admirer into his own assassin, forseeing and securing his own mythical status in the process.
One other minor quibble I have in a film that is otherwise so stylistically careful, is the lazy use of sped-up cloud formations – a cinematic technique so cliched now it should only be used in parody. Otherwise there is much to admire about ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’ even if it’s difficult to invest emotionally in such a bleak assessment of human nature. The film’s mood sits readily next to Paul Thomas Anderson’s operatic ‘There Will Be Blood‘: both films suggesting that the myths at the heart of the American dream – its outlaw heros, its oil prospectors, for example – are soaked in blood and barbarism.