Some months back, I came across a recommendation for several period films that were “must sees” by whatever criteria this particular article (or maybe it was a video) was discussing. I honestly don’t remember the details. But I dutifully added the titles, including the mouthful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to my list of movies to watch.
The months rolled by and, despite a generally positive reputation of the film, I avoided actually watching it. Something about that monster title seemed to frighten me off. Finally, last night, I did watch and I have to say that this movie is something else.
This is another movie with Brad Pitt leading the production credits. Once again, this is a movie that likely never would have been made without someone like Pitt giving it the push. I have to keep in mind that while this movie is new to me, it is not new – it is now more than a decade old. Its release precedes some of the other Pitt movies that I’ve talked about above. In the case of Jesse James, Pitt had an interest in working with the director based on the director’s one previous film (Chopper) and that interest along with an offer to star brought with it big-studio backing.
The film was made in 2007 based on a book of the same name from the early 1980s. The director, Andrew Dominik, apparently came across that book in a second-hand bookstore and was inspired to create the film. The book had been reasonably popular in its time and had received the 1984 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction (an award granted to American authors), but it wasn’t anything that was just aching for a movie treatment. With Warner Brothers support, however, came the funding to do it up right.
The production is very high quality. It has an army of top-notch names thrown at it with, for example, Ridley Scott also leading the production credits. Nick Cave did the music and even sings The Ballad of Jesse James onscreen for good measure. The director, himself, was not exactly a household name at the time, although he would go on to work with Pitt again on Killing Me Softly, lending him (particularly in retrospect) a little more weight. The style of the film defies convention. The pace is slow, emphasizing beautiful and artistically-framed shots over action. A frequent device is the use of shots with the outer edges of the frame blurred created, not digitally, but with some unique lens work.
The actor’s list is filled with top-named talent, particularly given the obscure and art-house feel that the film projects. Throughout the piece I had several instances of “that couldn’t be X playing Y? Well, yes, it is.” The lead figures were outstanding. Brad Pitt dominates the screen in a way that challenges the medium. A large part of the “story” here is what is going on inside the characters heads. What does Jesse James suspect? What does he know? What are Bob Ford’s real intentions? As readers of history, we can’t really know the answers to these questions – intent died a long time ago with the individuals. The movie also approaches it this way. The narrator speculates, but even he doesn’t know the whole truth.
Part of it may be that Brad Pitt is playing to his “type” – the charismatic outlaw figure upon which he earned his fame. I have to think, though, that there is some skill involved in being able to dominate a room (and a room that is really an on-screen set, at that) entirely through subtext and expression. Yes, he is speaking his lines, but often the content of those lines is irrelevant. We the audience have to ignore what he is saying and try to figure out what he is thinking. I think Pitt really does this just right.
Likewise the supporting actors, playing the Fords and the other members of his gang, supply to these characters a psychological aspect that goes far beyond the dialog. In these cases, it is the weaknesses and simplicity of the characters that must be portrayed, but not as caricature. Again, it feels to me to be spot on and it amazes me how well I’m drawn in.
The result was a film that drew praise and awards from across the board. This comes at a price, though. Domestic box-office gross was a mere fraction of production costs and, after factoring in international sales, the movie barely brought in half of what it cost to make. No wonder the studios like to limit their focus to comic book franchise sequels.
When it is all said and done, are we left at the end of the film with more answers or more questions? Even that is left as an exercise to the audience after the film is over. Was Bob Ford really a “dirty little coward?” Could he have been the hero? Was he simply a tool that Jesse used to, essentially, go out of this world on his own terms? How much of the film is “real” and how much is pure speculation? Things to think about for months after watching this one.
This movie also hits a couple of my favorite movie themes, in which I’ll indulge myself by discussing.
Even in 2007, Brad Pitt had already outlasted Jesse James in terms of longevity. However, Brad Pitt, now in his mid-fifties, probably looks better than many Civil War veterans did in their early 30s. Consider that James was hounded and haunted at the end of his life, and Pitt seems a reasonable (even optimistic) choice for portrayal based on age. But Jesse’s brother Frank is portrayed (also very well, in my opinion) by Sam Sheppard, an actor twenty years Pitt’s senior. Yes, Frank James always appeared more “mature” than Jesse and, having outlived him considerably, eventually did look genuinely “old.” Nevertheless, the obvious gap in ages is a bit of shock. Initially, I couldn’t figure out who the hell Sheppard was portraying. He is (and looks) old enough to be Pitt’s father and it took a bit of dialog to convince me that I was looking at Jesse’s older brother, older by a mere four years.
I also noticed, in writing up this article, that Casey Affleck really looks a lot like Robert Ford if I use the one photograph of Ford that is out there on the internet. It’s no separation-at-birth but the similarity is there. I will add that Affleck, like Pitt, is about 10 years too old to “be” Bob Ford at the time of the story. Affleck also, even at the time the movie was made, had already outlasted Ford, who himself lived only until 30.
Taking on another favorite topic of mine, I had to watch the shootout between Wood Hite and Dick Liddle to make sure I got it all. Not to go into overmuch detail, it is a gunfight that takes place in a bedroom that leaves all involved (up to a point) with only minor injuries. Not only is this accurate because it’s true but it is one of the oddities of fighting with guns. There is the true story of a (modern) gunfight in an elevator in which nobody was hit. The number of bullets that can sometimes fly without much effect can be astounding. Rewatching the scene, I took in and appreciated some of the detail. You can actually see the absolute lack of aim as the two characters are blasting away at each other while only a few feet apart. Were they instructed on how to plausibly miss? Or were they simply, as actors, as bad at shooting as their characters were 137 years ago. Does it matter?
It’s a shame this movie wasn’t more popular. I almost feel like I have it all to myself, which is cool, but not productive. Rare is the investor who would be willing to lose $15 million on a movie production just so they can win lots of awards and the admiration of critics. Unless people watch good movies, good movies are not going to get made.