The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford
Brad Pitt, Mary-Louise Parker, Casey Affleck

4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
America loves its bad men. Al Capone. John Dillinger. Mike Tyson. Jesse James. Richard Nixon (okay, that one’s a stretch). When Jesse James was shot by his protégé, Bob Ford, his home state of Missouri went into mourning. Jesse’s body lay in state on ice for days (I said it before, and it bears repeating: that practice adds new meaning to the phrase “stinks on ice.”) Photo postcards of his corpse fetched as much as $2, a princely sum in 1882. Conversely, there was no such fanfare when Jesse’s older brother Frank died of natural causes in 1915, mainly because Frank was a repentant sinner and Jesse was not. As for Jesse’s assailant, young Bob had his moment, then was treated like a pariah. When a disgruntled admirer of Jesse’s blew Bob away in 1892, no one paid a dime to see the scattershot lodged in his throat. “The Assassination of Jesse James” is as much the story of James’ last years as a hunted, paranoid animal as it is Bob Ford’s dangerous obsession with his boyhood hero. Bob’s consuming admiration for Jesse parallels the celebrity worship of Selena by Yolanda Saldivar with equally tragic results. There’s an old saying about keeping your enemies close. If they’re armed, maybe that’s not such a good idea.
The plot follows the beginning of the end for the James Gang. By 1881, when the action begins, all the members of the original gang except Frank (an appropriately worn and taciturn Sam Shepard) and Jesse (Brad Pitt, hollow-eyed and unstable), are either in the ground or in jail. The new gang, made up of green country rubes such as Bob Ford’s older brother, Charlie (reliable Sam Rockwell), dim-witted Ed Miller (the ever-present Garrett Dillahunt from “Deadwood”), Wood Hite (tough and loyal Jeremy Renner) the James’ cousin, and sweet talkin’ skirt chaser Dick Liddil (perfectly cast Paul Schneider), are planning to rob the mail train at Blue Cut. For Frank, who’s barely on speaking terms with his increasingly enigmatic brother, it’s his last job. Determined to meet his idol, join the gang and make a name for himself, Bob first approaches Frank at the gang’s hideout: **Bob**: I honestly believe I’m destined for great things… **Frank**: Quench your mind of it. You don’t have the ingredients, son… Frank will later make an observation that sums of Bob’s off-putting effect on everyone he encounters: “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.” Thanks to Charlie being a full-fledged member of the gang, Bob slowly ingratiates himself to Jesse. After the Blue Cut robbery the gang is forced to scatter, with Liddil and Hite eventually heading south to Hite’s parents home in Kentucky while Miller roughs it on his own. Bob manages to linger with Jesse and his family until he’s no longer useful and the boss begins to tire of him: “I can’t figure out if you wanna be like me, or you wanna be me.” Jesse says. With Pinkertons gunning for him on every corner, Jesse sinks into bouts of paranoia, depression, violence and random acts of kindness, such as when he gives Bob a new gun (the one Bob will eventually use on him) and tries to make amends: **Jesse**: You know what John Newman Edwards once wrote about me? He said I didn’t trust two men in ten thousand and was even cautious around them. The government’s sort of run me ragged. I’m goin’ a long way ‘round the barn to say I’ve been feelin’ cornered and just plain ornery of late. So I’d be pleased if you’d accept the gun as my way of apologizin’. **Bob**: Heaven knows I’d be ornerier if I were in your position. **Jesse**: No, I haven’t been actin’ correctly. I can’t hardly recognize myself sometimes when I’m greased. I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and mean face and I wonder about that man who’s gone so wrong. How I became such a problem to myself.” The gang members experience similar hardships -- infighting, jealousy -- and fall prey to the types of stupid human tricks that eventually bring all criminals down. Several members of the gang, including Bob, are captured and forced to turn on Jesse. Bob sees it as an opportunity to finally attain the greatness he feels is due him. “I was the baby, the one they made promises to they never kept,” he says, “And ever since I can remember Jesse James has been as big as a tree.” After taking down “the tree,” Bob becomes more popular than the President. (The President happened to be Chester A. Arthur, so a piece of driftwood would have been just as big a celebrity). But like all one trick ponies, the public took more pleasure in tearing Bob down than in building him up. Since this is a film about Jessie James’ assassin as well as the famed outlaw, the less familiar fates of Bob and Charlie in the aftermath of James’ death are particularly fascinating, tragic and historically accurate. If there’s one valid glaring problem it’s the film’s length. The James’ career didn’t seem to last as long as the film’s bloated 160 minutes. There are long awkward silences between Pitt and Affleck’s characters that are just as easily explained by the narrator, several protracted scenes in which Jesse cruelly teases Bob when one would have sufficed, and a glacial scene on the ice between Pitt and Rockwell in which Jesse states what his actions have made obvious – he’s feeling suicidal. Casey Affleck has received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Bob Ford. I’ve been told his performance in the “Mystic River” clone “Gone Baby Gone” is more award worthy and I hope that’s the case. Affleck is very good in the role of the twitchy, immature, put-upon hero-worshipping Bob, but Oscar worthy? I dunno about that. Basically he’s playing, pardon me for saying this…A spazz. Affleck’s projects Bob as hesitant and weird, like your best friend’s little brother that you couldn’t get rid of when you were kids. His striking resemblance to off-beat musician David Byrne helps; the other characters constantly teasing Bob and commenting on his strangeness and how no one can trust him does not. If the real Bob Ford was truly as odd and uncomfortable to be around as the other characters lead you to believe, he never would have made it beyond his initial contact with Frank James. Jesse supposedly killed slow on the uptake Ed Miller for having loose lips. And we’re supposed to believe Jesse’s not only going to ride with Bob, a boy he doesn’t like or trust, he’s also going to invite him to live with him at his hideaway? The only way around that dilemma is that no one, including Jesse, ever saw Bob as anything but a doofus and certainly not a threat. Nevertheless, suspend all logic as to why Bob Ford is actually a member of the gang and watch Affleck’s affecting performance. A stable of actors have played Jesse James, including matinee idol Tyrone Power, war hero Audie Murphy, perennial good guy Roy Rogers (Roy Rogers? Did his horse Trigger play Frank?), and a real actor, Robert Duvall. You can now add Mr. Angelina Jolie to the plus column. I’ve always been skeptical of pretty boys, but Brad Pitt is slowly making me believe they can act after all. This is the third great performance I’ve seen him give (“Seven” and “Babel” are the others). He succeeds in portraying Jesse James in every flattering and unflattering light, giving the legend substance. The notion that Jesse James was clairvoyant is as hard to believe as Bob Ford being a first class outcast and then becoming Jesse’s most intimate member of the gang. Jessie knows that Ed Miller has betrayed him, so he kills him; Jessie suspects his cousin Wood Hite has been killed and Dick Liddil has something to do with it, so he just happens to go to the Ford’s hideout where Dick is cringing in a closet. The hardest part to believe is when Jesse thinks the Fords may be plotting to betray him. He sets his guns down to dust a picture, inviting Bob to cap him. The idea that the real Jesse James purposely left himself unguarded in front of a boy he couldn’t trust is ludicrous, but by the time the scene is played out, Pitt’s portrayal of a wrung out Jesse makes the notion that Bob’s assassination was more of an assisted suicide at least plausible. (Not to mention the fact that the camera angle in the last scene makes it clear that Jesse could see Bob’s reflection in the picture.) Pitt is charismatic in the early scenes of the film as he displays his skills at train robbing; ruthless when he administers a sickening, man-sized beating to the Ford’s teenage cousin (and is clearly wrong for doing it); and is worthy of the audience’s pity as he spends his final days hiding out with the Fords and his family. Veteran character actor Sam Shepard’s interpretation of Jesse’s crusty, saddle-weary older sibling should be part of the actor’s handbook. The lesser known members of the James Gang (the outlaws, not the rock group) are well defined and superbly acted. A dose of Garrett Dillahunt (Ed Miller) should be required for every western. Dillahunt played Francis Wolcott, George Hearst’s psychopathic serial killing assistant in “Deadwood.” Wolcott was too smart for his own good; here Dillahunt plays a dull-witted, well-intentioned character who’s too stupid to live a long life, and he plays the role well. The petrified look on his face when Jesse asks Miller to “take a ride with him” and he realizes he’s about to “get the business” is priceless. Sam Rockwell plays the equally uneducated Charlie Ford with aplomb, going from a happy-go-lucky opportunist, to a coward terrified of being found out, and finally a guilt-ridden husk destroyed by his own conscience. Jeremy Renner, as the James’ cousin, Wood Hite, displays loads of cowboy bravado, going appropriately hell bent for leather when he discovers his close friend Dick Liddil has defiled his elderly father’s flirtatious young wife. The confrontation between Hite and Liddil is fast paced and debunks cowboy lore – both men fire at one another in a confined area and frequently miss (cowboys were more often bad shots than good ones). Liddil’s less than gentlemanly attempt to kill Hite when he runs out of bullets is surprising, but Hite’s reaction is chillingly cold blooded. You’d think the two old buddies would call it quits after winging each other, but Hite is determined to uphold the honor of a woman he doesn’t even like. The savage, no holds barred conclusion to their fight is a shocker rife with realistic special effects. Paul Schneider gives a standout performance as the fast talking, erudite Dick Liddil. We see him teasing Ed Miller while spouting poetry, romancing Hite’s eager to be had young step mother, taking a one way ride with Jesse and somehow avoiding ending up like Miller. In one of his few selfless acts, he prevents Jesse from beating the Ford’s young cousin to death, risking Jesse’s wrath. Liddil is a survivor, as evidence by the deal he cuts with Governor Crittenden, and Schneider successfully portrays Liddil’s self-confidence, voracious sexual appetite, and talent for dodging trouble. He’s the Joe Valacchi of his generation. Two recognizable character actors and a well known public figure have pivotal bit parts in the film. If you’ve ever watched “Monk,” then you’ll recognize Ted Levine, who plays Sheriff Timberlake, one of the many peace officers in pursuit of James. Levine may play comic foil Captain Leland Stottlemeyer to Tony Shaloub’s Detective Monk on TV, but he’s also played a number of villains, including way out cross dressing killer “Buffalo Bill” Gumb in “Silence of the Lambs.” For “Jesse James” Levine taps into his smarmy villain with a badge bag. Veteran character actor Michael Parks, who back in the day played hippies and radicals (“Then Came Bronson”), seems to be getting a real charge out of playing a hump busting government thug helping Governor Crittenden and Sheriff Timberlake put the screws to Liddil and Bob Ford. James Carville, taking a page from Fred Thompson’s public figure-turned actor page, portrays tough as pig iron Governor Thomas Crittenden, who put a $10,000 price on James’ head: “Jesse James sent me a telegram last month, saying he was going to kill me if he had to wreck a train to do it. He said that once I was in his hands he was going to cut my heart out and eat it in strips like it was bacon…I’m gonna wreck his train first.” Narration often gets in the way and confuses the obvious in films (let my imagination figure out what’s going on, I always say). The story of Jesse James needs no prodding, but is actually embellished by narrator Hugh Ross’ sympathetic observations: “(James had) granulated eyelids, which caused him to blink more than usual…As if he found creation slight more than he could accept…” The cinematography and scenery are strikingly brilliant. When Jesse rides up on Ed Miller’s clapboard hideout in the dead of winter you can feel the cold chill tearing across the desolate landscape. The scene when the gang robs the train at Blue Cut is as grandiose and exhilarating as what you’d come to expect from the James Gang’s dime novel exploits. The train rumbles out of the darkness as a pinprick of light before enveloping the screen; the hooded robbers stand by the side of the tracks like ghostly apparitions, waiting for the train to ground to a halt, and Jesse stands defiantly on top of the felled trees and logs used to block the tracks, daring the conductor to try and get through him. It’s a remarkable scene that’s in great contrast to the ugliness that ensues when the robbers board the train and Jesse beats a heroic baggage master. He’s about to murder him without an after thought until Ed Miller tells him to stop (which might be where Ed and Jess started to go wrong). Jesse tells his fellow nightrider, “Don’t you tell me what I can and can’t do, Ed,” with such cold blooded detachment you know he means it, and the dismantling of Jesse James as heroic Robin Hood has begun. With films like the recent remake of “3:10 To Yuma” and “Seraphine Falls” the American western is slowly making its way out of the corral of neglected genres and back into the money making field occupied by action movies and comedies. “The Assassination of Jess James” is a killer, featuring a bonanza of talent. Ride on, saddle up, and join the gang.

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