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.
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
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.