dir. Andrew Dominik
"I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
Slate, one of my favorite time-wasting websites, recently put together a guide compiling all available "best films of the decade" lists. The top ten contains most of the films one would expect: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men, and Brokeback Mountain—no argument here, quality movies all. Also as can be expected, the movies further down the list are either less notable (Casino Royale), or highly polarizing (Irreversible)—not a whole lot of surprises here either, except for one. Appearing nowhere on this list is my favorite movie of the decade, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So far, Slate has compiled only six available best-of lists (with more to be included); but how could such a striking, singular film have been missed by six prominent list-makers?
Truth be told, when I first saw Dominik's film (on DVD, not theatrically, unfortunately), I admired the photography but not much else. Quite honestly, it rather bored me. It took me about three nights to watch because I kept falling asleep. Jesse James definitely wasn't something I had any desire to re-watch. Over time, though, I found that I would continue to think about certain scenes, wanting to see them again. It may have been because of my sleepy state while watching the film, but I remembered the movie as having a dream-like quality. After re-watching certain scenes on youtube, I thought, 'Wow this is even better than I remembered. Roger Deakins' photography is amazing.' It still didn't occur to me to re-watch the whole movie, though.
When I went to see The Informant (one of my favorite films of this year) some months back, I got to the theater far too early (as is my anal, always-be-on-time nature) and decided to kill some time at the neighboring Borders. I didn't plan on buying anything, of course, but while searching through the racks of over-priced DVDs, not only did I find a twelve dollar, four movie set including: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Train Robbers; but also a seven buck copy of Dominik's movie. 'What the fuck', I thought, 'it's got some good scenes, I wouldn't mind owning the Jesse James flick.' [Side note: Borders, I would like some free shit in exchange for this free publicity I just gave you.]
I still didn't have any intention of re-watching the movie, however. I wanted to own it for two reasons: one was to re-watch the scenes I remembered loving and the second was to use the movie as a sleep aid. Although my condition is not quite as bad as it used to be, I am a bit of an insomniac. Seeing as I can't pass out from drunkenness every night of the week, I find it helps to have other methods of sleep inducement. Movies are perfect for this (My favorite sleeping pill movies include 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris).
Sure enough, I was having trouble sleeping one night, and so I decided to have Jesse James lull me into a deep slumber. I ran into a bit of a snag, however. Not only was I not becoming sleepy, but I was getting super fucking engrossed in the film. It was getting me excited. That wasn't supposed to happen. I still didn't finish the movie that night, however, but it wasn't because I passed out. Far from it. By the time 2:30 rolled around, I realized that I would have to force myself to stop watching the movie, and get to sleep if I wanted to function at all the next day. All throughout work the next day, though, I couldn't stop thinking about this movie. I couldn't wait to get home and finish re-watching it. After I finished watching it that night, I couldn't wait to re-watch it yet again.
How had I so completely misjudged this film the first time through? Sure, my feelings on certain films had changed over time before, but never to this extent. Since purchasing the DVD, I have watched it about five times, enjoying it more with each viewing. Andrew Dominik's film grew on me like a motherfucker. This film not only rewards multiple viewings but demands them.
Because Jesse James gains with each viewing it is perhaps understandable that it wasn't included on anyone's list. Those without time to re-watch certain movies that did not affect them the first time through, will go with their first underwhelming impressions of such pictures. It's not hard to also see why this film didn't do well at the box office. Whereas most movies about Jesse James have encompassed either his entire life or only the most exciting robberies, Dominik's picture begins with the end. Indeed, Jesse James' only action scene (the gang's last escapade, the Blue Cut train robbery) is front-loaded in the first twenty minutes of this nearly three hour film. The rest of the picture is filled with slow, contemplative character studies.
Dominik approaches the mythic figures from our Western past with a modern understanding of psychology and human interaction. He is aided in his character piece by top notch performances from Garret Dillahunt, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, and, of course, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck. The first time I saw this film, I was confounded by all the seemingly superfluous scenes exploring the separate lives of all the side-characters, but upon a second viewing I realized how essential all these supposed tangents were to the plot and forward thrust of the narrative. In the words of The Wire's Lester Freamon, "All the pieces matter." I could write at length about these secondary characters (and of their actors' performances), but in the interest of keeping this piece relatively short, I will focus on those whose names are in the title of the film.
Pitt's Jesse James is an unstable, paranoid (some might say mentally ill) figure whose death [SPOILER ALERT: ROBERT FORD SHOOTS JESSE JAMES] is less an assassination than a kind of suicide. James recognizes that the sycophantic, enigmatic Ford can potentially prove dangerous, yet Jesse invites him (and his dim-witted, affable older brother Charley) to live in his home. Ford even puts James' wife on edge (she extends Ford only the civilities that polite society dictates). Does James invite Ford to live with him because he ultimately wants to get assassinated? Is James enough of an ego-maniac that he just enjoys the praise being heaped on him, no matter how unhinged the source of it is. Is there another reason? James' intentions remain mysterious.
The true revelation, though, is Casey Affleck's performance as Robert Ford. Robert grew up reading dime novels of Jesse James' robberies, hoping to one day join him, or maybe become him. He is a kid who has not quite yet learned to distinguish between myth and reality. When Robert Ford comes to realize that Jess James is not quite the person he grew up idolizing, his world falls apart. He also recognizes that the erratic James would just as much kill him as invite him to the breakfast table. Perhaps, Ford's eventual betrayal stems from a fear for his life. Maybe he considers this his chance at fame. Maybe he seeks to redress a perceived wrong. Maybe, tired of being known as a nincompoop, Ford feels he has to prove himself. As with James, Ford's intentions are inscrutable.
In its examination of the idea of celebrity (and, indeed, of one of our first national celebrities), Jesse James is a distinctly American film. It examines the way people will, without knowing the person, form such a bond with their perception of a celebrity, as to take as a personal offense any actions from this person that do not live up to preconceived notions. People readily live vicariously through these fantasies, so as to escape the banalities of their ordinary lives.
As with his earlier film Chopper, Dominik also examines our tendency to heap fame on criminals. One of the greatest ironies of this story is that, while a man who laid claim to seventeen murders and countless robberies could be revered as a folk hero, his assassin, a man who killed only two people, would become reviled as a national monster. [Of course, Ford did also shoot James in the back, hence the coward epithet.]
As a side note, it should be mentioned that I was not completely wrong about this film the first time through. From the get-go I rightly recognized Deakins' photography as being top notch. In a career that has included most of the Coen brothers' films, I would dare say that this film showcases Deakins' best work (not counting, of course, the time-lapse fast motion cloud shots used throughout Jesse James, one of my most hated cinematography cliches, and one of the few faults I can find with the film).
Interestingly, Terrence Malick, a man whose work Dominik is indebted to, made a film this decade, The New World, that was included on the aforementioned best of the decade compilation list. Malick's late period movie is quite an impressive achievement and I would likewise include it as one of my favorite films of the decade. With Jesse James, however, I believe that Dominik has out-Malicked Malick.
Who knows? I may be naming this film as my favorite of the decade because my opinion of it has changed so drastically since my first viewing (or because no other people included it on their lists), but there is no denying what a masterful artistic achievement it is. Through its beautiful photography, focus on character, naturalistic acting and dialogue, re-examination of popular myths, haunting score, and inclusion of beautiful scenes of folks hanging out, Jesse James brings to mind such revisionist westerns as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Bad Company (1972), The Missouri Breaks, The Hired Hand, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and Days of Heaven (calling this last film a Western is a bit of a stretch, I know). The Assassination of James by the Coward Robert Ford is the best seventies western made in the aughts.