Three children, they were brave;
But the dirty little coward
that shot Mr. Howard*
Has laid Jesse James in his grave.
That's from the old song "The Ballad of Jesse James" which I remember from my youth, forever enshrining James and the "dirty little coward" Robert Ford in my memory. It was written by one Billy Gashade (who took pains to include himself in the lyrics, naturally) soon after the outlaw's death. As with so much in the Jesse James business, it is reflective of the myth of Jesse James rather than the reality. For instance (as the Ford character points out in the movie) Jesse only had two kids. The fact behind the myth was that Jesse James was a vicious little punk--racist, paranoid, just as capable of killing friends as enemies, and women and children in the bargain. And while it's true he did rob from the rich--his target was banks and trains (or Union veterans)--the legend that he gave to the poor only extended to himself and members of his gang. No one who sees Jesse James as a folk-hero, or seeks to profit from that image mentions the mutilations he would perform on his victiims. It kinda gets in the way of the "fun." Yet, folks in Missouri still talk of the history of Jesse James (I once stayed in a hotel that advertised he slept there), and there's even a feud going on about whether Jesse really did die, and there are folks who want to dig him up to check DNA evidence to claim family affiliation. The myth rolls on. The lies that were sold in the pulp-magazines during his life are still at work, and as the line from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" goes: "This is the West, sir. If the Legend becomes Fact, print the Legend." Even if it is a god-damned lie and the guy was a scum-bag.
It is the yin and yang of truth and fiction that suffuses "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but then it did in reality, too. The conceit of the film (and the book by Ron Hansen on which it is based) is that Robert Ford was a product of a pulp-western inspired hero-worship, that Jesse had his eye on the stories, too, and their mutual attraction and loathing of the truth behind it was the music to the dance of death they engaged in. Robert Ford was a nobody, and, in the film's words "Jesse James stood as tall as a tree." And that set up a love-hate relationship with the unstable hoodlum. "I can't figger it out," says Brad Pitt's Jesse to Casey Affleck's Bob Ford. "Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanne be me?" The fact is Ford doesn't know himself and the answer changes depending on his fortunes...and his fears. But as the cliche goes there's only room for one of them, and if there's no doubt that the strong will prevail, there is some question which one that would be. Maybe it will merely be a case of who is the least weak. Ironically, both will go on to greater fame and infamy.
Andrew Dominick's film meanders between an informative narration** spoken over landscapes beneath time-lapsed speeding clouds, as if Nature is careening to a foregone conclusion, while the figures take their own sweet time getting there. Dominick has a formalism going with those fleeting clouds and shots that are framed by a time-distancing diffusion. But it's very inconsistent, and rendered meaningless--no doubt due to post-production cutting by Producer Ridley Scott and star Pitt to punch up the pace. If it's not all Dominick wanted it to be, at least there remains some terrific performances all-around. Pitt is at his enigmatic best here, an unreadable half-smile on his face in all occassions. Sam Rockwell as Ford's older brother and fellow gang member gives another off-kilter performance that is spot-on. Along the way there are terrific cameos by Sam Shepard, Michael Parks and Ted Levine (and one distracting one by James Carville), but the stand-out is Casey Affleck. Affleck is every insecure, withdrawn kid who talks big, with a defensive smile on his face, and eyes that roll protectively up into his head when challanged. He's a train-wreck waiting to happen. And Jesse James specialized at trains.
If you're of a patient frame of mind, and have a taste for an unromantic West with heavy-handed irony then "The Assassination of Jesse James"is for you. But if not...
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a rental.
* "Thomas Howard" was the alias Jesse James was using at the time of his death.
** The narration has its own problems. One is not too sure of its reliability. For instance, in describing Jesse it states that he had "granulated eye-lids" which caused him to blink excessively, though part of Brad Pitt's performance is a protracted concentration, where he stares but does not blink. Then, the narration goes all flowery on the subject "...caused him to blink as if the world was too big to take in for too long." The film has its own problems with truth and myth.