Jesse James As Pop Icon

Maui Time | September 28, 2007
Jesse James - Pop Icon

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Five Stars) (628 words)

By Cole Smithey

New Zealand director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper") tells the story of Jesse James's last days in a patient and unequivocal style that makes us want to turn back history. Based on the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, Andrew Dominik presents an epic western stripped down to its barest elements. The 34-year-old Jesse James (brilliantly played by Brad Pitt) attempts to settle down with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and children under the alias of Thomas Howard, but is unable to escape his renown as America's most popular train robber. Jesse's least intelligent follower is Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the younger brother of trusted James Gang member Charley (Sam Rockwell). Casey Affleck gives an outstanding performance that proves him to be a character actor of immense creativity, clarity and composure. Cinematographer Roger Deakins ("In the Valley of Elah") utilizes a "big sky" image system as formally composed chapter breaks to seamlessly magnify the story's epic qualities. Intermittent voice-over narration is the single element that keeps perfection at bay in this highly original addition to the western genre.

There's an early scene between Jesse's stoic older brother Frank (majestically played by Sam Shepard) and the 19-year-old wormy Bob Ford (Affleck) that expresses Ford's infuriating ability to ingratiate himself with the robbers he idolizes. Frank keeps lookout in the thick woods near the James Gang camp. Affleck's Bob Ford hunches low on the ground in the thick woods and pleads his case for to tagging along on as Frank's "sidekick" on the coming night's robbery. In Affleck's wispy bright voice, we hear the strains of a sycophant plying his trade. Frank impatiently dismisses Ford back to the camp where Ford's older brother Charley (Rockwell) does some verbal jousting with Dick (Paul Schneider) and Jesse's cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner) and about "poetry not working on whores." "You can hide things in vocabulary," Dick tells the others. It's a humorously loaded message that sends clues about interpreting the film's measured use of language that gains significance as a yardstick of multiple historic and cultural meanings.

After pistol whipping a bank guard, during the film's only train robbery, Jesse explains to his shocked cohorts, "They got their company rules, and I got my mean streak, and that's how we get things done around here." It's a satisfying character and theme line that shows how Jesse James explains his actions, and how he views his compartmentalized attack on social injustice enacted by thieves with pens, who would eventually disguise their crimes under the name of "corporation." The suspenseful heist is a noir-inflected nighttime mission that plants the seed of Jesse's effectiveness as a highly skilled criminal mastermind. Jesse's innate ability to judge character and situation makes Bob Ford a surprising Achilles' heel, and it's the inescapable duality between the men that energizes the story.

Jesse gets wind of a plot against him by his former gang, and traces their steps back to Wood and Dick, who have let violent jealousy, over a woman, drive a stake between them. The inciting event allows for a remarkably erotic outhouse scene between Dick and a not-so-distant relative of Wood, Sarah Hite (Kailin See), when she invites Dick with the telling line, "And you thought I was a lady."

Andrew Dominik keeps the script's subtext of "celebrity culture" at a distance until the film's coda resolves Robert Ford's life after killing the gunslinger legend that he worshiped from dime novels. Here is a modern western "art film" that utilizes the camera's discreet observations to sculpt a tidal wave of generational zeitgeist from a clash of ideals. It is a movie to be savored.

Rated R, 160 mins. (A-)(Five Stars)


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