One measure of a film, we have found, is how much we talk about it afterwards. When we came out of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford yesterday, Maureen and I could hardly stop talking. I think it achieves what Terrence Mallick thought he was doing with The New World, making the landscape tell the story. The camera dwells lovingly on grass swaying in the wind, on snow-coated fields, on a frozen river, on stark mountains and dark forests and muddy city streets, and yet, unlike with Mallick’s film, you don’t grow tired of the slowness but rather relish it because it works, it all ties together, it propels the story forward in a way that makes you unwilling to look away even for a moment. Seeing these shabby cabins huddled at the bottom of bare slopes you understand everything that shaped these people.
The story follows the last few months of James’s life. His gang has gone now, the Youngers were all shot up at the Northfield Raid, even his brother Frank is growing distant and is soon to depart for New York. And the last train hold up, carried out mostly with local ne’erdowells, is hardly a great success. Frank recognises this, he tells Bob Ford, kid brother of one of the gang, that it’s the last raid by the James boys. Bob doesn’t want to hear that, he’s been brought up on the dime novels that have made Jesse James into a national hero, and he wants to rub shoulders with the hero, become part of the story. Jesse doesn’t want to hear it either, partly because he still carries a couple of not-yet-healed bullet wounds and an unspecified disease, he knows he’s dying and he can’t think of anything else to do; but partly also because he is now carried away by his own story. He doesn’t trust Bob, but he wants the hero worship.
There is one pivotal scene when Jesse sits down to dinner with Bob, his brother Charlie, and their parents. What is said is fascinating, but what is not said is even more interesting. It is a measure of how arresting the film is that everything rests on this one scene, but nothing said in the scene relates to the plot in any way. Everything is done in the expressions. We see how scared Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) is, but we also see his feral intelligence, the way he is adopting a role to keep himself and his family alive. We see Jesse (Brad Pitt, the best thing I’ve ever seen from him) effortlessly menacing, slightly mad (there are sudden rages throughout the film that are electrifying), delighting in taunting Bob but at the same time, in the narrowed shifting eyes, we see how hungry he is for Bob’s adoration. And then there is Bob (Casey Afleck, a spellbinding performance in a film in which there isn’t a single dud role), he doesn’t say much but in his eyes we can trace with excruciating precision the exact moment he shifts from adoration to doubt to distrust to antagonism.
Another thing to be said about the film is how it is dressed and decorated. This is a close as I have come to an authentic glimpse of mid-Victorian America as I have ever seen in any cowboy film. The furnishings, the sagging underwear, everything feels right. And that extends to the gunplay. This is the most anti-heroic film it is possible to imagine. At one point two men have a gunfight in a small bedroom, exchanging around eight or ten handgun shots from a distance of no more than a couple of feet, and there is only one relatively superficial wound. It is tense, ludicrous and utterly authentic. The famous gunfights of the old West were in truth notorious for the number of shots fired and the paucity of wounds suffered, at least to the participants. Part and parcel of this is the way that every single person killed in the film is shot in the back, right up to the very last frame when Bob Ford wordlessly turns towards the shotgun being aimed at him.
Not that I don’t have quibbles about the film. I’m pretty sure that the song ‘Jesse James’ – “that dirty little coward who shot Mr Howard has laid Jesse James in his grave” – is of 20th century origin. It had a curious, short-lived vogue when I was a child in the 50s, and though it probably predates that I’m pretty sure it wasn’t composed in Bob Ford’s lifetime. And I’m damned sure it wouldn’t have been performed in the way Nick Cave did. And I also have doubts about the romantic suggestion that Jesse James manipulated his death as a form of suicide – though this was prefigured in an extraordinary scene when Jesse talks to Charlie about suicide than appears to shoot at his own reflection in the ice of a frozen river, though this is ambiguous since when we see the ice there is only the haunting sight of a fish passing far underneath and Jesse might always have been shooting at that.
All in all though, the visuals are stunning, the performances are peerless, and it will take some doing if I am to see a better film this year.
First published at LiveJournal, 14 January 2008.