– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
Thick clouds rush the blue sky into a gray existence, filtering the Western world of Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford down to the barest essentials. Here, the frontier is a darkly hued place of inevitable silence, a lyrical last stand for iconic names with dirty faces against the passage of time and the culmination of guilt. Roger Deakins’ camera captures mountain ranges, forests, and tundra’s shrouded in haze, blurring, romanticizing, and complicating the yarns of yesterday. And the death rattle of Western iconography begins and ends with the complex relationship between an American idol and his biggest admirer.
“All of America thinks highly of me.”
Omniscient narrator Hugh Ross, a kind of soothsayer for Dominick, juxtaposes the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) with painterly images of the man gently running his hands through a field of wheat, standing alone against an endless horizon, a figment of history’s imagination. In these early moments, Jesse’s eyes give away a sadness and torment living inside him, something no other character fully understands yet Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ indelible score immediately realizes.
Dominick’s imagining of James borders on ambiguous, especially when his paranoia and suspiciousness begin to tear his life apart. We only have Pitt’s deep optic wells to relay crucial character information on a sub textual level. But James physically emotes a combination of ego, charm, and unpredictability, creating a ripe tension of identity within a man convinced the world needs his iconic status to be complete. As Jesse disintegrates right before our eyes, the haunting process reflects Dominick’s brilliant complication of Western archetypes.
“You don’t have the ingredients son.”
When Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) walks into a space, eyes avert and conversations die, as if the occupants (including his own family) feel incredibly uncomfortable with his presence. From the start, Dominick paints Bob as a lonely cipher amongst a small canon of outlaws, and then contrasts his sly impact on two different James Brothers. Elder Frank (Sam Shepard) can’t stand the sight of him, while Jesse (Brad Pitt) tolerates Bob with casual talk of noodle soup. This discrepancy could be a matter of character, but it also represents one man’s admission to ending the legend and the other’s adherence to compromising it. Bob seems to be the primer for a downfall years in the making.
The Blue Cut Train Robbery, the last official criminal act perpetrated by the James gang, sets this long descent into motion. It’s also the most stylized sequence in the film, as Dominick shrouds the tracks in complete darkness until the blinding light from the locomotive floods the trees, casting shadows on the masked bandits lying in wait. During this robbery, Jesse brutally beats a railroad man nearly to death, and it’s the first and only time the public forum gets to witness his legend in action.
More importantly, the robbery represents how far the James Gang as fallen, populated by unprofessional rubes and bumpkins, eliciting few returns on the massive investment of time and preparation. This flux of certainty and confidence allows Bob into a select group led by Jesse, who remains skeptical, needy for admiration, and unsure of his iconic status.
“It is interesting the many ways you and I overlap.”
Soon, patterns of character overwhelm the Western conventions in The Assassination of Jesse James. Bob retracts and restates his devotion to all things Jesse James again and again, yearning for the man’s approval while detesting his ability to manipulate and control. In one of the decade’s most evocative performances, Affleck plays Bob as a time bomb of facial ticks, half smiles, and outbursts of childish anger, an engine of interior thought and calculation. The breaks and cracks in Bob’s voice speak volumes about his riddled persona.
Not surprisingly, Bob never receives the respect of his peers because he resides outside their universe, a subjective historian of their public evolution. Understanding his hero does not create increased admiration, but more anger. The chameleon resents being taught how to manipulate shape and figure, causing a permanent rift in each character.
Jesse becomes more and more secluded from Bob’s notions of heroism and the audience’s expectations of a historical personage. Their conflicted relationship begins to overlap in many of the same ways Bob has foreseen, each waiting for the other to commit to a specific vision of self, neither staying in one form for very long. The murder of Jesse James only slightly clarifies Bob’s motives, but ultimately muddies the context in which both will be remembered.
“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse more than 800 times.”
That Dominick allows Bob an epilogue infused with regret and memory makes The Assassination of Jesse James twice as tragic, not just creating a parallel destiny between two men intrinsically linked but expanding the Western universe to include the complex social aftermath of the act itself. The ramifications of Bob’s betrayal take on a national meaning, foreshadowing America as a media-heavy beast obsessed with perception over reality.
While Bob and his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) reenact the infamous assassination for hundreds of theater patrons, the legend of Jesse James grows in astronomical proportions. Bob’s rise is equally impressive, but Dominick always flanks this public attention with a lingering sense of guilt and comeuppance. In the final moments, the narration even surmises that Bob “missed the man just as much as everyone else.” History’s human face has come full circle.
“…the light going out in his eyes, before he could find the right words.”
By the end of the film, Dominick builds his crescendo around potent freeze-frames and extreme temporal shifts and The Assassination of Jesse James becomes a hypnotic vision of loyalty and pain, a personal requiem for the very images defining the American West. The escapades and lies add up to an incomplete rendering of History more dynamic and fascinating than any book lesson or educational program could imagine. Dominick interrupts the revisionist Western with a cinematic poem on what it truly means to survive long enough to become the villain.
– The Filmist’s # 9 entry, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, can be found here.
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I usually hate the use of narration in films, but Jesse James stands out as the rare film that would lose a great deal of impact without its gentle, poetic words. I’m not sure how Dominick managed to find that balance between what’s told and what’s shown, but the combination, particularly within the epilogue, is electrifying.
Thanks for an insightful essay.
Nate – thanks for the kind words. I agree, this film and the characters wouldn’t be nearly as powerful without the voice over, and the music for that matter. These two audio devices seamlessly meld what is often a challenging historical perspective and fragmented story.
I really dig your blog and overall critical sensibility and was wondering if you’d be willing to start contributing some current film reviews and/or essays to my evolving, multi-writer film blog Gone Cinema Poaching (www.cinemapoaching.blogspot.com). It doesn’t pay, but it’s a good way to get your work and name out there. If you’re interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can talk details.
Hope you’ll do so!