I confess that this movie made me fall asleep after the first half hour. When I woke up, certain images from the film persisted in my memory (Roger Deakin’s play with light and shadow of the approaching train), nagging me to view the film once again from the start. To my surprise, on my second attempt, I found it to be one of those rare films which do not provide much evidence of good cinema in the early sequences while it provides such evidence much later on. And this is a rather long (2hr 40min) film. However, the film gradually entices the viewer to keep watching with the filmmaking competence improving as the film keeps un-spooling. By the end of the movie, it is quite likely that a patient viewer will not feel cheated by the director Andrew Dominik but instead admire his work that is a cocktail of delicate performances, suitable music, and admirable cinematography.
Long titles often summarize the plot of a film. The killing of the outlaw Jesse James is miniscule to the long tale of psychological games between various characters in the film. Here is a case of fictional biography (what an oxymoron!) authored by Ron Hansen and written for the screen by the director Dominik. While the assassination itself forms the fulcrum of the film, Dominik divides the film at that juncture. First he presents the buildup to the assassination and the second part is the reaction to and the aftermath of the event. Much shorter than the earlier one, it is the second half that truly makes the film come alive.
One would usually associate the word assassination with leaders, political or religious. Here is a tale of an outlaw who killed human beings as he would kill snakes (shown in the movie). Yet ironically he captured the hearts and minds of an entire nation. Here is a tale of a robber of banks and trains. Dominik and Hansen present a revisionist view of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt), an outlaw wearing clean clothes and a typical family man. The viewer is made to empathize with the dapper Jesse James, the moody Jesse James, the loving Jesse James who gifts a gun to his would be killer…The clouds in the film have a touch of Terence Mallick’s cinema as much as the absurdist visuals of a man taking a bath in a bathtub in the middle of a field. This is not surprising as Dominik is stated to be a fan of Mallick’s Badlands and Mallick in his turn thanks Dominik in the credits of the latter’s The New World.
The film appears to be tale of a fan and a larger-than-life hero. A hero has to be a loner—he not one of us lesser mortals. It is therefore no wonder that Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw sits alone brooding in a backyard close to snakes that he is about to kill to make a point. It is no wonder Dominik/Hansen’s outlaw is one that his own blood brother Frank (Sam Shepard) gradually distances himself from a normal sibling relationship. The filmmakers take great pains to sketch the toll of the evil deeds of the outlaw on himself while journalists and fans think of him differently. The bounty on his head does not help the disintegration of a normal mind that sees enemies and turn tails among his buddies. The repressed anger and frustration comes out on screen as Jesse shoots at a fish in a frozen lake. It is no small wonder that Brad Pitt won the best actor award at the Venice film festival for the role.
The unusual merit of the film is the hero Jesse James in part recognizing his would-be assassin Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), much in advance of his death. He not only quick with his gun, he is quick on the uptake. The silent pact of a Jesus and a Judas is insinuated between the all-knowing outlaw, who after going to the church with his family uncharacteristically keeps his gun away to dust a painting on the wall, and the eventual killer. One could argue that this "Jesus" of the American wild west needs a "Judas" to keep his notoriety alive. The many confrontations between the hero and the fan add up to a cat and mouse game that is captured delightfully by the camera, a twitch here and a look there, and the game is up. Even the Mallick-like nature shots by the impressive Roger Deakins add an underscore to the visual details of the battles between coward and hero.
One of the defining lines of this psychological film is when Jesse James (Pitt) asks his fan and eventual killer Robert Ford (Affleck): “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Sometime later the fan replies after introspecting “Heaven knows I would be “ornerier” (sic) if I were in your position.” To reduce the film to interactions between hero/anti-hero and coward would be incorrect as the characters take on different hues in each sequence just as the clouds captured by Deakins and Dominik in the movie are ephemeral, changing colors and shapes with time (note the poster of the movie above).
The script goes into top gear after Jesse is killed. Casey Affleck’s character was so far shown in the movie as a fan of 19 going on 20, looking for a chance get rich with the bounty money. The disintegration of the “coward” is more interesting than the disintegration of the “hero”. The first part had shown an assassin hero-worshiping his victim, with homosexual overtones of even sleeping in his bed before the kill. The second section shows him as a heterosexual and exhibiting signs of a courageous man confronting a balladeer (Nick Cave) to correct him on his facts. The scenes of the re-enacted assassinations are lovely studies in human psychology. Affleck’s Oscar nomination for his performance was well deserved.
Over the years I have been amused to find fine Australian talent migrating to USA to make movies. Andrew Dominik is not the first. One recalls Peter Weir who could never recreate the magic of Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Last Wave after crossing the Pacific. Big budgets and Hollywood’s rules seemed to stifle him with some of his latent talent emerging in Dead Poet’s Society. Bruce Beresford is another Aussie director whose work in Australia (such as Breaker Morant) was a tad better than the Oscar winning Tender Mercies and Driving Miss Daisy. It is equally true of a slew of actors Mel Gibson, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, et al. Or the case of the amazing Australian cinematographers Russell Boyd and John Seale, who have both made a mark in recent times with new technology rather than the creative surges evident in their early Australian works. It is no wonder that Dominik chose Australian musicians, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, to lend a fabulous musical score, over American musicians.
In retrospect, this American film, shot in Canada, with all the Australian talent behind the camera, is different from other regular American films. Two remarkable directors, the Scott brothers—Ridley and Tony—have partly bankrolled the film. Evidently they had confidence in Dominik to make a rather unusual American film. Revisionist films have been made in the US but have never been highlighted by most film critics. A particular film that I would put in perspective is Abraham Polonsky’s less-fictional biography Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969) with Robert Redford, Katherine Ross and Robert Blake. Unfortunately, the talented Polonsky was blacklisted by the McCarthyists. Dominik need not have such fears as his film only looks inside minds of men and women, not the politics of bounty-killing.
Dominik has made an interesting film. I wish the mettle of the latter part of the film was evident in the earlier parts to make a viewer sit up from the beginning of the film. And last but not least, enjoy the unobtrusive music that adds to the richness of the film. A more pertinent evaluation of the film would be to focus on the word "coward" than the word "assassination" in the title of the film. If one reflects on the movie, it is basically a study of hero worship rather than of heroism or of cowardice. It is also a study of how the larger population reacts to heroes and what the journalists write about them. For a while the assassin is the hero for many; later he is not. Arguably, the film is not just about Jesse James or Robert Ford. It is about us.
Author's note: As this is is the hundredth movie discussed on this blog, I thank all the readers who have written to me with useful comments or words of encouragement.