This one marked the beginning of the reinvented Brad Pitt career renaissance. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) was the one to me that began the Pitt hot streak (acting for big-time directors Tarantino, Malick, McQueen), which came to the end with one bad movie recently: “The Counselor” in October 2013. Taking on the legendary outlaw Jesse James, the film was a piece of history revisionism showing the outlaw as a family man with the modest dream of settling down.
The antiquated style is integral to its mood. Australian director Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”) and Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption”), in collaboration, pulled off marvelous visual feats. Widescreen shots have a painterly elegance, while in some close-up shots, the edges of the frame are smudged and hazed that give off a crystal ball effect – like we’re eavesdropping through a time warp into the past.
The film turns back the clock so that we can see how differently people lived in the late 1800’s, for better or grubbier. How a family man’s breadwinning ambitions differed, how people bathed in aluminum tubs, how their idea of group male talk is conducted (humorous, uneducated twang). Most of these characters are criminals on the outskirts of society, but they have their homes – homes on the prairies where they are recluses for months until they ride into town for purposes of this and that, or to rob and steal.
As for crony Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), his ultimate inner desire is to make love to his friend Jesse James’ wife, but we only comprehend this in how he gazes at her. The voice-over narration comments on Ford’s honor in what it means to be a gentleman hand in the household. To feel useful as an extra set of hands in the house is the honor itself for a man in that time period.
Most of the men have the usual characteristics of sadism that has been carried through the bloodline of generations. Other ordinary men are shoved into crime and required to adopt survival methods. The dialogue, such a problem with some viewers, is idiosyncratic, fanciful, and strange of its times. In group male talk, there is a discussion of how poetry is useless when it comes to romancing a whore. In a surprising scene where a criminal is seducing a lady, he talks gushingly of how beautiful her limbs are put together. In an era when there was no pop culture maxims to teach men how to compliment a lady, it’s not surprising that a man would talk about how beautifully attached her limbs are connected.
Jesse James (Pitt in greased black hair and mustache) was indeed the most famous criminal of them all, a legendary bank robber, whose exploits made countless newspaper headlines and trash dime novels – Pitt’s take on the character is just as complex and intelligently told. Up until 2007, Pitt’s bad movies had outweighed his good movies. Let’s take a moment to forget “Sleepers,” “The Devil’s Own,” “The Mexican,” etc. but there was at least “Legends of the Fall,” “Seven,” “12 Monkeys” worth praising in his career. Pitt makes Jesse James a vicious wild card – charismatic but cordial, full of violent contradictions. Yet the fact that Pitt contributed his talents by doing an atypical western, outside of studio convention rules, and directed by an Australian and photographed by an artist, was commendable by itself.
If you hadn’t noticed, the title announces itself on what is going to happen. Robert Ford is a fresh insecure lad, an admirer of Jesse who latches on and nudges his way into Jesse’s gang. Really he’s an unwanted fool who becomes the butt of jokes among the gang. It’s easy to turn the tables on his mentor. Dominik directs with a fatalistic quality, the film plays like an elegy of Jesse’s death before his death is actually seen – we know what’s coming for him even though he can’t. Robert Ford will assassinate Jesse James, but the mystery will unfold as to why he shot him.
The film’s masterstroke comes in the fleshed-out final act – the mythology of how cowardice became synonymous with Ford’s name for the remainder of his life. I have turned on the DVD many times over the years just to watch the remaining 25-minutes, which is perfect elegiac storytelling, briskly told and stunningly shot.
The shade of disappointment with the picture is that Jesse’s criminal infamy is implied without letting us see the capers. There is only one train robbery in the film – an exciting one to say the least, dazzlingly photographed in the dark of night with gusts of train exhaust smoke blowing in the face of masked men. But it occurred to me that the film could have had a prologue that contained a montage of Jesse in his bad-boy glory days. Jesse’s outlaw legend is dramatized in hearsay.
But still, come on. The drama of “Assassination” is nothing short of majestic. Pitt’s audacious acting is on display. He would follow it next with “Burn After Reading” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” quirky and inventive performances as well. His next starring role is “Fury” for director David Ayer, about crossing enemy lines into Nazi Germany in 1945.
160 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “The Wild Bunch” (1969); “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969); “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” (1973); “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013).