Occasionally, in a quiet moment, I might find myself reflecting on the demise of the Western. At a recent preview screening for 3.10 To Yuma – starring marquee names Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, no less – the attendance was barely into double figures. I wonder, then, how the brilliant The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford will fare?
Occasionally, in a quiet moment, I might find myself reflecting on the demise of the Western. At a recent preview screening for 3.10 To Yuma – starring marquee names Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, no less – the attendance was barely into double figures.
I wonder, then, how the brilliant The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford will fare?
The film is long, the pace is stately, the tone brooding. It’s based on a book by Ron Hansen, and the film regularly lifts lengthy, winding passages from the novel for a voiceover: “He was growing into middle age and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue…” Stylistically, it frequently reminds me of a Terrence Malick film, plenty of graceful shots of skies and wind rustling the long grasses on the Kansas prairies.
It’s a film about fame and celebrity culture. It tells the Jesse James story from the point of view of Robert Ford, who’s grown up reading about the exploits of the James-Younger gang in lurid, sensational dime novels – “Many is the night I stayed up, my eyes open and my mouth open just reading about your escapades,” he tells Jesse. “They’re all lies,” replies James.
“In many ways, you and I overlap,” Robert Ford goes on, undaunted, probably unable now to stop himself saying things he’s only imagined he’d ever get the chance to utter to his idol. “You’re the youngest of three James’ boys and I’m the youngest of five Ford boys. You have blue eyes and I have blues eyes. You’re five foot and eight inches tall and I’m five foot and eight inches tall…”
As Robert Ford lists all these physical similarities, you can’t help but think about the endless, inconsequential data you find in the celeb mags, and how the star-struck will grab onto anything, you suspect, that will somehow connect them to their hero, however trivial it may be.
Writing this now I’m struck, too, by the similarity between The Assassination Of Jesse James and Martin Scorsese‘s fantastic deconstruction of celebrity culture: King Of Comedy.
Both films were studies of obsession, jealously and revenge, and Robert Ford – idealistic, ambitious, unaware of his own failings – is as dangerous and delusional as De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin.
Robert Ford’s admission – “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things” – echoes Pupkin’s mission statement: “I’d rather be king for a day than a schmuck for a lifetime.” You can hear it, too, in the witless utterances of today’s reality TV show contestants: “It’s always been my dream to be famous…”
Of course, the great irony here is that Jesse is played by one of the celeb mags’ most bankable A-listers, Brad Pitt. As Jesse sits listening to Robert Ford run through his list of shared characteristics, you can imagine Pitt himself is only too familiar with this kind of world.
Pitt’s Jesse is a private man, a family man, whose public persona veers wildly away from the truth. “He regretted neither his robberies, nor the 17 murders he lay claim to,” we’re told. He’s forced to move, often and usually in the dead of night, in case people learn his true identity and come to claim the bounty on his head. His children don’t even know his real name.
He’s unpredictable, prone to outbursts borne either from frustration or fear. His emotions are internalised, he looks gaunt and pale. He is certainly not a hero.
Pitt has often taken risks during his career – think of movies like 12 Monkeys or Fight Club. These are the kind of films you assume must bug the hell out of those folks around him who’d rather he just made less bothersome movies and dedicated his efforts to easy, popcorn hits like Ocean’s Eleven.
You wonder how Warners, the studio behind The Assassination Of Jesse James, will market this. Brad’s celeb mag loving audience are going to be scratching their heads. The title’s a bit unwieldy. It’s very long. And quite wordy. There’s not enough gun fights.
In fact, it’s a serious piece of film making, admirably bold in its refusal to make concessions to movie fads.
Brad aside, there’s great kudos here for Casey Affleck, superb as Robert Ford – borderline obsequeous, utterly in Jesse’s power, his hero-worship gradually corroding into something more dangerous. I’m not giving anything away here that’s not already in the film’s title, but after Jesse’s death, Robert Ford finds his own kind of fame. His gradual unravelling in the final act is extremely moving, superbly judged by Affleck, as Ford is branded in a popular folk song of the day “that dirty little coward, For he ate of Jesse’s bread and he slept in Jesse’s bed, And he laid poor Jesse in his grave.”
I’d love to write more about this — it’s genuinely one of the best films I’ve seen this year. It’s playing at the London Film Festival. Go along, see it, and let me know what you think.