Jesse and Bob

Peter and I went to the movies last Tuesday to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

We came out pretty much shell-shocked, so to speak. Neither of us had any problem with the length of the movie, although Peter started to wonder how things would develop while the first scene—in the forest on the afternoon before the train robbery— was being played out. With nightfall, the movie wrapped itself around our attention and didn’t let go until the credits were rolling.

That first scene established many of the parameters of the movie. Dramatically, the ambition of Robert Ford is brought out in parallel with the growing distance between Jesse and Frank James, as is Dick Liddil’s womanising. Technically, there is the setting of the palette for the cinematography. The woods are practically bleached, complementing the men dressed in dark neutral tones. And that is as colourful as it gets. In my limited experience, though, the soundscape of this film is a revelation, and it starts with this scene.

Altman had developed a technique of multiple conversations occurring simultaneously in a wide shot. It made for difficulties in following the events. In TAoJJ, one of the uses of the sound is to widen the topography of the scene. In the forest, the men are scattered about in small groups. The camera moves about in this space, focussing on one or other of the groups. As the camera moves, the soundscape traces, off camera, the distant voices of other conversations, and immerses the viewer in the three dimensional auditory scene, the focus of which is visible on-screen. It’s a simple technique which works well in the relative quiet of a sparsely treed forest. There’s another example when Jesse and his son walk home in St. Joseph. He exchanges some words with Ford on the way through the gate, and as he does, you can hear a girl’s voice reciting some children’s rhyme. A few seconds later, she appears around the corner of the house.

An immediately noticeable aspect of the soundtrack is the gunshots. They make a sharp percussive crack unlike any purported gunshots I have heard before, not only in westerns. I don’t know whether this is realistic, but it sounds realistic, and the novelty of that impression of verisimilitude lends verisimilitude to the movie.

If we think the opening scenes in the lead-up to the train robbery establish relationships and introduce us to the characters of Jesse, Frank, Ford and Liddel, we have to think again about Jesse in the aftermath of the robbery. He’s a vicious, arbitrarily violent thug. Upon that character trait, the film hinges.

I have to say that I’m not good with violence, or more precisely, with the suspenseful expectation of violent death. A movie like The Duellists is a case in point: full of premeditated life-threatening clashes between the two protagonists, with the final outcome uncertain (on first viewing at any rate). It had plenty of back-in-the-seat moments, but the final duel twisted my entrails like fusilli.

TAoJJ has more than its share of such moments. The key to suspense, as Hitchcock insisted, is that the audience must understand the threat, and the audience is left in no doubt as to the threat posed by Jesse James to all of his confederates, as much as to the victims of his robberies. The scenes in which we wait, often with the victim, for the shot to be fired, are chaotic to the dyspeptic constitution. Such scenes, however, are only the points at which the brooding menace of the entire film is brought intermittently into sharp focus. From the departure of Frank James, the narrative arc of the movie is the increasing terror felt towards Jesse among his former confederates, especially the Ford brothers, Robert and Charley.

The highlights of this process are the conversations that take place when Jesse unexpectedly shows up—conversations that turn into cross-examinations. In these dramatic set-pieces, Brad Pitt glows with malevolent intelligence. While, no doubt, Pitt’s construction of these moments is tribute to the eloquence of his body language, the rivetting focus is his eyes, shading from bonhomie through suspicion to a steely conviction.

Casey Affleck’s performance is certainly memorable, but more problematical. He presents Robert Ford as a kid with big dreams and an exaggerated idea of his own destiny. One of his techniques for conveying the immaturity of Ford is to adopt a high-pitched, breaking whine, which, for mine, is too much like caricature. In spite of this drawback, his presence is arresting, and in critical scenes shared with Pitt, such as the dinner at which the ghost of Wood Hite is an unwelcome but inescapable guest, and the climactic scenes leading up to the murder of Jesse, he maintains his balance against the sheer weight of Pitt’s performance. Startlingly, his character grows in stature in the compressed history of his life and death after the killing, becoming, by the closing scene, the most sympathetic character to have passed across the screen.

Dominik employs a chorus in the form of a voice-over, the text of which seems to have been taken directly from the novel. Much of the colour, movement and lyricism that are conspicuously absent from the cinematography, the deliberate pacing of the film and the mournful music, are compressed into glorious passages of lyrical prose in the voice-over. As a chorus, it attempts to fill in the psychology and particular motivations of both Jesse and Robert Ford, and is an economical method for so doing, in contrast to the stately and sparely beautiful atmospherics of the cinematography. The film would be much the less without it, if only for the lushness of the poetry.

However, it does remind you of what Scorsese or, more especially, Kieslowski in, say, Blue, can convey with image and sound “within the frame”. To do so, requires a far richer cinematic palette, and the movie would have to have been conceived in a radically different way.

Talk of motivations leads back to the central problem of the film. The assassination doesn’t work. The events portrayed in Jesse’s home follow faithfully the sequence as related by Robert Ford, but they carry a crushing overburden of what can only be described as mysticism. Dominik is trying to establish some connection of acquiescence from Jesse to Robert; a death wish, so that even as reading about Liddel’s surrender triggers panic in Robert and Charley, it precipitates Jesse’s suicide. He removes his gunbelt and stands, vulnerable, on a chair to dust a picture, exactly as reported by Robert. Them’s the facts, folks, but the movie offers nothing to justify its hypothesis.

These reservations notwithstanding, the film is an order of magnitude more satisfactory than most contemporary fare.

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