The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford has a heck of a climax. You’ll never guess who kills who.

It’s a deliberately-paced, long, slow, film with little action. And I really liked it, perhaps even loved it. It’s not at all a traditional Western despite traditional Western subjects and characters, but much more a study of obsession and idolatry.

It’s late in the career of the James brothers, Frank and Jesse. The gang that rose to fame with them is long dispersed and they have been running with a loose gang of Missouri locals. One last big train heist will signal retirement for Frank and a downshift into a slower life for Jesse. Part of the gang are brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Charley is a full-fledged member of the gang while Bob is more of a support player, hanging back and watching with adoration.

Bob’s the kind of guy who has idolized Jesse James since he was a child. He has a box full of James memorabilia under his bed and can reel of a list of statistics of how he and his idol are alike. Bob’s Jesse James is a larger-than-life hero, the stuff of dime store novels and kids playing in the schoolyard. He’s somewhat dismayed to find the real Jesse doesn’t match the man he thinks he knows so well.

An invitation to Bob from Jesse to hang around at his home after the robbery plasters a smile on his face, even though he’s used for nothing but hard labor. His mind starts cranking, even imagining himself as a surrogate member of the family- until Jesse sends him on his way.

And so the hero image begins to fade. Subsequent interactions with Jesse further erode that image. He’s something of a bully and gets on Bob’s case for idolizing him so much. “Do you want to be like me,” Jesse asks him pointedly, “Or be me?” Over time Bob’s adoration fades, but the obsession does not. If he cannot be Jesse’s sidekick, he can at least be the man to bring him down.

The long runtime helps to completely develop Bob’s character. Everything about this guy is perfect: the look of admiration in his eyes as he talks about Jesse, the embarrassment he tries to hide when his friends and Jesse give him a hard time, the false wisdom and masculinity he emulates from his novels, his fidgety and nervous demeanor. At one point there’s a shootout in his bedroom and he kills a man who is about to shoot his friend. The entire fight he sits on his bed frozen in fear until the last moment when he shoots. He walks downstairs with a swagger in his step, twirling his revolver in his hand. Every move Bob makes feels right and every motivation is understood. Bob’s a simple-minded guy and his view of Jesse turning sour flows realistically. Casey Affleck embodies him terrifically from his look to the halting way he speaks. Everyone talks about Javier Bardem as the supporting performance of the year but Affleck may be even better (though he may really be more of the lead).

The film’s look at themes of obsession and heroes doesn’t end with Bob. The rest of the gang idolizes Jesse as well and the guys argue over who he favors more. The men do whatever he says, even if they’re sure Jesse is just taking them out back to kill them. They live in complete fear of the man but can’t wait to do his every bidding.

Jesse James is a bit more elusive of a character and I could’ve used a bit more development of him. I was never quite sure why he was doing what he was doing. Early in the film he’s quick to execute a gang member who crosses him, but by the end he more or less lets Bob shoot him. He knew elements of his gang were turning on him but does little. Was it all a complicated headgame? A descent into paranoia, depression, or insanity? Or an elaborate suicide plot?

The coda is a part of the film that is sure to leave a lot of viewers cold. I found it absolutely fascinating. Yes, the shift is a bit jarring (what a year for disjointed endings, huh? This, No Country, There Will Be Blood, Atonement…) but it’s a reminder that this isn’t really a story about Jesse James or Robert Ford but about American idols. Bob is first a celebrity, later scorned by society and shot by a stranger with his own hero complex. It’s a perfect ending.

I do have a few small complaints besides the one about confusion over Jesse’s motivations. I didn’t really feel its length at 160 minutes, but it definitely could’ve been shorter. The narrator also drove me nuts. His language was too flowery and his omniscient observations were not always welcome. But the big thing is that it sounded all wrong. The tone and timbre of his voice felt more appropriate for a quirky comedy than a serious drama. I thought he sounded a lot – a lot – like the narrator in The Royal Tenenbaums.

Affleck got a deserving nod for Supporting Actor and cinematographer Roger Deakins picked up one of his two nominations for his work here (he also shot No Country For Old Men). The film looks terrific and the emptiness of the midwest is almost another character. I also would’ve welcomed a nomination for Adapted Screenplay for Andrew Dominik for creating a script that so masterfully dove into a character and where every line feels so right. He directed the film too and, hell, I’ll say he deserves credit for that also. I was also a fan of Nick Cave’s score.

All in all really terrific stuff. It’s the kind of movie I can understand some people not liking but I found it completely fascinating.

Advertisements