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"The Assassination of Jesse James"
Dir: Andrew Dominik

Patricia Ducey

After the cessation of military hostilities in our Civil War, the war raged on, in small spasms of violence, not military campaigns, in what we now call "The Restoration". Bands of disaffected confederate soldiers fought on, ostensibly for the southern cause, but the unfocused violence also provided a hook on which any vagabond or criminal could hang his hat. Jesse James was such a man, before he was mythologized into a Robin Hood by song and story. A Southern fighter, he was allegedly shot by a Union man as he tried to surrender, and this set him off on his own long march of murder and mayhem across the south and Midwest. And contra the legend, he was not particular about whether his victims were Yankees or not. But the tabloids of the day, the dime novels and the balladeers, capitalized on his good looks and good luck in escaping the long arm of the law, and a legend was born. By the time we meet him in the current film, and by the time Robert Food meets him, James has killed almost 20 people and robbed 25 banks, and he and the remnants of his gang are licking their wounds after their major defeat in the Northfield, Minnesota raid.

This latest retooling of the James legend significantly retains the full title of the 1983 novel by Catholic novelist Ron Hansen, revealing its underpinnings as a morality tale. Significantly, he names the killing an assassination, as if James were a great figure, and names Ford as a coward. This is a complex film, redolent with aesthetic and thematic material denoting moral and physical death, with its centerpiece the performances of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, the Mark Chapman of his day, and Brad Pitt as the aging, paranoid celebrity outlaw. Also notable is the cinematography of Roger Deakins, etching an indelible portrait of the forbidding winter plains over which the gang roamed, seeking sanctuary from their relentless lawmen pursuers.

Pitt, perhaps as known for his legendary celebrity persona and good looks as for his acting prowess, is an apt choice for the James role. Underwritten or underplayed, Pitt’s Jesse is a signifier, a cipher: has already surrendered into world weary numbness, leaving us to speculate as to the meaning of his character. He gazes into the distance, he mocks the hero worship Bob Ford lays at his feet, he questions the loyalty of his boys, but we are left to wonder why. We don’t know who he really is or what motivates him. His ennui is not enough to drive a narrative.

The real centerpiece of the movie is Robert Ford, with a performance by Casey Affleck worthy of the accolades already bestowed upon him--for the soul and the heart of his Robert Ford is still very much in play. Drama is conflict, and every tic and sidelong glance or nervous smile that flashes across his face reveals the war inside his head. Affleck’s Ford is tragic and foolish and somehow modern. He saves the dime novels about Jesse like a lovesick schoolgirl but has the bad luck to join his idol in his waning days. He cannot comprehend the low fortune of his childhood hero. Ford cannot laugh when James mocks him, “It’s all lies, you know,” as he recounts James’ own exploits in his favorite dime novels, and Ford stares back in disbelief, like a scolded puppy. If his idol is just a man, then he is certainly as big a fool as the gang make him out to be—and he in his narcissism cannot admit that.

In a desperate attempt to achieve the fame he craves, he brags to federal officers that he will kill Jesse, and he finally does it. He then lives out his years doing staged re-enactments (the forerunner of reality TV) to full houses, but audiences eventually turn on him. The popular songs of the day condemn him –“the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard has laid poor Jesse in his grave.” He cannot fathom why they hate him, and when another Jesse fanboy eventually kills him, it’s almost a relief.

Affleck’s Robert Ford is reason enough to see this; he creates an unforgettable character every bit as modern as Mark David Chapman and as archetypal as the biblical Judas. This film is truly adult entertainment, in the best sense of the word adult.

-- Patricia Ducey

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