Monday, 23 February 2009

Bob assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever so often or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.

No 396 - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Director - Andrew Dominik

At last. At long bloody last. I have been trying to watch this film for a very very long time. Admittedly, not enough to actually BUY the film but it is something that I have been investigating. I took it out at the library a few weeks ago.... but the disc was scratched and would skip and jump and dance around. Like a gallivanting school child before they become jaded and tired with life.
That made the disc suitable for analogies. But not so suitable for watching. So with great joy, I saw that the film flopped through the letter box. God bless LoveFilm. I can finally write up about the bloody thing.

I have always been of the opinion that Mr Brad Pitt is an excellent actor, and whilst I've not really seen him in much I have heard exceptional things about Mr Casey Affleck. So it was nice to see them outside of Danny Ocean's little gang.
What I instantly noticed in watching this is.... Brad Pitt is getting old. It may well be character, but he is craggy, he is worn, he has a shark's cold eyes. He is also a truly terrifying looming and menacing presence. People are not just scared of him because of his power, they're scared because of his very presence and that he could fly off the handle at any point, killing everyone without breaking a sweat. I like to think that his is because of his massive winter coat of awesome. It is an excellent coat.

However, the terror is not just induced by Pitt's Jesse James. Casey Affleck's Bob Ford is a scary fellow. The character arc and development of Robert Ford is amazing. He begins as an awkward, fidgety, nervous fellow. Desperate to impress Jesse James, he is just a victim of fanboy hero worship, a trait that we probably all recognise to some degree. However over time it builds up more and more as the hero worship turns into obsession. Each time Jesse's group, or Jesse himself, belittle or tease Bob you see Bob clam up. Becoming more reticent. More angry. More insular.
The relationship between Bob and Jesse becomes unbelievably tense as both gradually get more worked up. Jesse in his imposing paranoia and Bob in his anger. You spend the whole time waiting for one of them to crack and attack the other.

Of course, you know that the fellow who does crack is Mr Bob Ford. That is not a spoiler. Well, it kind of is. But the spoiler is in the title. So shush your noise.
The build up to the death scene is beautiful and subtle. You'd expect the final breaking point to be an explosion of passion but it isn't. Jesse is almost anticipating the murder. Slowly, with a melancholic air, he sets up a situation in which he can be shot. It is quite sad, especially when Jesse's wife runs in, the tears streaming down her face.

You see.... despite the title, this film's title, this isn't about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, it is about the trappings of fame.
I have never done any research on Jesse James and his death, but if this film is to be believed, it caused quite a shock. Photos of Jesse's body were sold in stores around America. Songs were sung. And Robert Ford was reviled as a coward.

That is what I find really interesting.... The film doesn't hide or cover up the fact that Jesse James was a nasty piece of work. Not only does the narrator discuss the many many robberies and murders that the James gang committed but the film shows:
  • A violent shooting, taking place during a train robbery
  • The murder of several people at James' hands
  • (most shocking of all) The savage beating of a child.

Yet, what was most important was that Jesse James was famous. He was a public figure and seemed to be taken to heart by the people, despite his horrible actions.

So, Jesse's death led to outcry which eventually led to Robert Ford's death. What is really interesting however, is what the Narrator says about Robert Ford's death. I've taken a line of it for my title, however I'm going to stick it all down here:
He was ashamed of his persiflage, his boasting, his pretensions of courage and ruthlessness; 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, that he missed the man as much as anybody and wished his murder hadn't been necessary. Even as he circulated his saloon he knew that the smiles disappeared when he passed by. He received so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. He kept to his apartment all day, flipping over playing cards, looking at his destiny in every King and Jack. Edward O'Kelly came up from Bachelor at one P.M. on the 8th. He had no grand scheme. No strategy. No agreement with higher authorities. Nothing but a vague longing for glory, and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford. Edward O'Kelly would be ordered to serve a life sentence in the Colorado Penitentiary for second degree murder. Over seven thousand signatures would eventually be gathered in a petition asking for O'Kelly's release, and in 1902, Governor James B. Ullman would pardon the man. There would be no eulogies for Bob, no photographs of his body would be sold in sundries stores, no people would crowd the streets in the rain to see his funeral cortege, no biographies would be written about him, no children named after him, no one would ever pay twenty-five cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in. The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.

It shows, that despite killing a terrible villain, Robert Ford was still reviled whilst Jesse James was almost forgiven over time. The film doesn't explain whether it is the actual act of killing which causes this hatred, however I think it is probably due to the fact that Robert Ford used the murder to craft his own fame.
The film shows that some people benefit from fame, thrive from it, are forgiven by it. Whilst others are vilified. The fickle nature of fame hasn't changed. It is interesting (I know, I've used the word interesting about 100 times....) to see that fame creates the same problems now that it did 150 years ago.

What I particularly like about this film is that it seems to work hard on trying to please me. Not only does it tell an excellent story. Not only does the story work on a number of levels... but the cameos also seem to have been excellently planned.
Let me list them for you to see.
Firstly Mary Louise Parker plays Jesse's Wife Zee. Whilst her part is somewhat small. She still gathers up some of the wondrous glamour and gorgeousness that she manages in Weeds.
Secondly, in a bar there is a man singer. Obviously, the film knows that only one man could possible play a wild west troubadour.... and they chose the RIGHT MAN. It makes me smile.
And finally.... Zooey Deschanel appears in it. For about 30 seconds. To perform burlesque. Inspired. Truly Inspired

I'm beginning to wonder if I can only like films with Zooey in.....

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