Friday, April 25, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James -- Acceptance or Betrayal?

The full title of the movie is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. You can tell from the length of the title that this is not going to be your usual western. In fact, it's going to be long and detailed, just like the title. Assassination is to the gunslinging western genre what Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line was to the WW2 war movie genre. Some will find this slow and a little tedious if action is in mind, but the power of the movie is in the visual beauty and the character exploration, especially of acceptance and betrayal.

The movie opens and closes with narration. "He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. . . .They didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard." We are introduced to Jesse James as a family man, with a home in the city.

But he is more than a simple husband and father. The narrator goes on, "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. . . . He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old. " He was a killer with charisma. By the year 1881 he was a living legend.

As we start the movie we meet Robert Ford, so ably played by the fresh-faced Casey Affleck (who was fantastic in Gone Baby Gone). He is 20 years old and idolizes the James brothers. All he wants in life is to be part of the James gang, to be like Jesse, perhaps to be Jesse. His initial approach to Frank James is spurned: "You're not so special, Mr. Ford. You're just like any other tyro who's prinked himself up for an escapade, hoping to be a gunslinger like them nickel books are about. You may as well quench your mind of it, because you don't have the ingredients, son." This is especially hard for Ford to take. He reveals his vulnerability, "I've been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one they made promises to that they never kept." We can empathize with this, since how many of us have had promises broken. Later, Jesse also rejects Ford's "apprenticeship" and in so doing creates his own nemesis. This is shades of Buddy/Incrediboy in The Incredibles, who cast aside by Mr. Incredible becomes the evil Syndrome.

This theme is crucial. Jesse could have taken the youg Ford under his wing, and taught him, trained him, made him. Ford worshiped the ground Jesse walked on. But Jesse made a huge mistake. Rather than granting acceptance, he gives out rejection, and it ends up killing him. And this raises an issue for us. How do we treat those who look up to us? Do we use our position of influence for the well-being and growth of our would-be mentees? Or do we fail to recognize these opportunities to bring good into the world, and instead act like Jesse, impatiently casting aside those who want our time and touch? Perhaps we don't even take the time to dwell on those around us.

Andrew Dominick has given us a beautiful film, that shows us views of the old West we rarely see in movies -- cowboys who have homes, with families and furniture, who live in towns and go to churches. They shop, cook, play with their children. He uses time-lapsed photography to show scenes of clouds moving across sweeping landscapes of deep wheat and grass. The camera provides long, slow visuals of horse ride journeys. And he uses soft-focused vignette-stylism to transition scenes so that they communicate the historicity of the drama.

The turning point is when Ford kills Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Jesse's cousin and co-train robber. Knowing Jesse is hunting the traitor who turned four of his gang into the law, and knowing further that Jesse will avenge this death, Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), now live in fear. Bob's hero-worship turns sour, and this former idolizing kid becomes an angry and resentful adult.

Assassination is actually a well-acted character study. Brad Pitt is outstanding as the family man/cold-blooded killer, Jesse James. When he is in his killing mind-set, he reminds us of Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Nothing will thwart him, and he verbally spars with his victims. On these killing trips, he brings fear with him as an invisible side-kick, that is so apparent it could be credited. This is a slow-burner of a film. Pitt's Jesse James remains unchanged, though struggling with his prior choices, but we get into the mind of Robert Ford through the acting of Affleck. We see him grow and change. While Charley is a joker, handling everything with humor, Robert wears his emotions on his sleeve. As it progresses, the intensity is slowly cranked up until the atmosphere is taut with tension, and each line spoken causes nerves to jangle.

It is clear from the turning point that either the Ford brothers will be killed by Jesse or they must kill him. It is a question of how and when. Toward the end, Jesse gives Bob a beautiful new gun. It seems evident that he knows that Bob will use it to kill him. Why does he do this? He is already a legend. But he is a legend who is troubled by inner demons: "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 my mean face and I wonder about that man who's gone so wrong. I've been becoming a problem to myself." He seems to want to die, and is almost setting himself up for Bob. And Bob takes the opportunity given and kills him in a cowardly manner.

After this, Bob takes to the stage to reenact night after night this cold-blooded killing, before it finally gets to him. Though he solved a serious crime problem in Missouri, he was hated because of this action. Rather than gaining the respect and attention he desired, he was despised as a coward. And no one likes a coward. In closing the movie, the narrator tells us, "he was sorry about his cold-bloodedness, his dispassion, his inability to express what he now believed was the case- that he truly regretted killing Jesse." The framing of the opening and closing of the movie with narration makes it seem almost documentary-like.

The story of Bob Ford brings to mind the story of Judas and Jesus. Judas spent time with Jesus, three years traveling as his companion. Yet, unlike Jesse James, Jesus never spurned Judas. Instead, Judas' inner evil desires caused him to betray Jesus. This betrayal earned him thirty pieces of silver, as Ford's killing of James earned him money and infamy. But, like Ford, Judas could not handle the inner shame and regret. His life ended at his own hand, a man filled with remorse. Betrayal of a friend, even a legend or Lord, is a tough meal to digest. It can bring nothing but sorrow for all.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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