Dang, Jesse, the Picture's Even Crookeder Now

Casey Affleck is superb as Robert Ford, a Jesse James groupie who, after shooting the outlaw, became famous before he, too, was shot dead.
Casey Affleck is superb as Robert Ford, a Jesse James groupie who, after shooting the outlaw, became famous before he, too, was shot dead. (Photos By Kimberley French -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

For the longest time, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" feels like something you might glimpse in a Weimar cafe about 1926. Strange figures dressed like hobos haunt an empty plain, laughing madly, speaking gibberish. Gunfire breaks out, sounding hollow and haunted. Where is death on his pale horse? Is this "The Assassination of Godot by Brecht" or "The Seventh Seal of Poor Mr. Howard" or some such artsy Euro madness, full of angst, despair, ruminations on the meaningless of it all?

Then you think: No, these are cowboys!

Andrew Dominik's strange, long and bizarre movie about the American outlaw and possible proto-Elvis of the 19th century appears to stick close enough to the facts that historians won't be able to complain. But it certainly takes the fun out of our old friend, the Oater, and languishes toward torpor, testing both patience and butt while driving popcorn sales through the roof. (2 hours and 40 minutes!) Possibly Dominik wanted to give us plenty of time to admire Roger Deakins's cold, stylized cinematography, or all the period-authentic but somewhat disconcerting top hats worn by the players.

Whatever, the film does pick up steam at the halfway point when, of all amazements, who should appear but James Carville, uttering the first direct order of the film, galvanizing all further action. That order, from Carville's brusque impersonation of the Missouri governor Thomas Crittenden: Get Jesse. Somehow, some way -- including the bullet behind the ear -- get Jesse James.

The movie, then, isn't a full bio of the fellow, the 5-foot-8 gunman who basically started his life's work as a Confederate guerrilla, then hid his larcenous heart and psychopathic bloodlust under a guise of romantically supporting the lost cause of his ideals in postwar Missouri and other marginally Midwestern states. Then, famous as any rock star, he encountered the wrong end of Bob Ford's .44 Russian while straightening a picture in the house he'd rented as "Mr. Howard" in 1881. Final score: Jesse 0, .44 Russian 1.

Dominik, well acquainted with psychos (his breakthrough was "Chopper," which gave the world Eric Bana), follows Ron Hansen's novel of the same name and opens late in Jesse's days, as he and a newfound gang of losers and cattle tramps prepare for what would be a last big train job. The Jesse that we discover lounging in the thin Missouri woods has, like many a gunman in a premature dotage, become extremely paranoid.

After the train robbery -- Jesse shows us how violent he could turn in a trice -- we follow him as he goes into his pattern of hiding, moving frequently (he had a wife and two children, upon whom he doted) and resting. He's like an old star in a peeling Sunset Boulevard mansion, surrounded by hangers-on, planning projects that never seem to come to pass, while his suspicions mount until they cause him to act crazily. Paging Norma Desmond! There's even a moment when he shoots an old friend in the back for crimes solely committed in the imagination.

As this old and twisted Jesse, Brad Pitt is quite good, even if it seems more like a selection of tics and mannerisms than a performance. As his brother Frank, who had the good sense to head east before the final endgame, Sam Shepard offers a much more convincing and complete portrait of a whole man, and when he leaves the picture early, it feels as though it takes a time to find a new center.

But "Assassination" really belongs to Casey Affleck as the coward Robert Ford, who as it turns out wasn't so much a coward (he'd fight anybody who called him that, even leaping into the audience from a Broadway stage) as a practical man who realized Jesse was too fast to be taken frontally.

Affleck, far more talented than his conventionally more handsome brother Ben, has a gift for playing mealy-mouthed marginals. (His best film previously has been the marvelous "Lonesome Jim.") His Bob Ford gets into the gang as the younger brother of Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell, playing dumb redneck to a T). It turns out Bob's a sort of groupie, a Jesse worshiper. But he's also a creepy little hustler (this whole scenario could easily be transferred to that showbiz milieu I spoke of earlier) trying to rise, trying to become the star's friend, and then maybe later his usurper.

Affleck has lots of tricks; he has a whiney, tinny voice, and when he loses confidence (upon his numerous rejections), it vaporizes into nothing. His eyes are shifty and he can't make contact with anybody through them. "You give me the willies," says Shepard's Frank, and it's true; Bob gives everyone in the gang and everyone in the theater the willies.

He's a little sensitive for the shoving and joshing of an outlaw gang on the run, and when his buds discover and tease him about his stash of Jesse porn found under the bed, he gets all pouty and snivelly. But like any star-worshiper he learns his love object is human and sometimes mean and he learns that he can never become such a man. This inevitably turns such a fellow against his god, and so Bob begins secret negotiations with the authorities to bring the big guy down.

That's when "The Assassination of Jesse James" is at its best, that last slide toward the fatal shot before which, for a time, Jesse and Bob try to read each other's minds, figure out what the other knows or suspects. Then the movie follows the choreography of the two men in the small house, the freaky mistake that the normally super-secure Jesse made in disarming himself and turning his back to the younger man as he climbed a chair to straighten a picture. We all know what happened next, and Dominik doesn't look away as the shot is fired.

The movie then traces Bob's remaining years, and Affleck, for his part, seems transfigured by the action. The actor ceases to slouch and creep and whisper, as if to express through the body that his character has become whole as a celebrity. In high Victorian makeup, Ford works the theatrical circuit for a while with his brother, going to the boards in various Eastern cities, recounting a flowery version of how he killed Jesse James. Dominik has a neat trick in which he shows the distance between myth and reality by charting how Jesse actually fell (deadweight to the floor like a sack of concrete off a wagon) and how that fall is mythologized onstage (a dainty pirouette with a few stylized death spins thrown in and then a kind of slow sit-down).

At the end, Bob was haunted as his celebrity evaporated and a popular song forever pigeonholed him as "that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard has laid poor Jesse in his grave." He died in 1892, shot by surprise, though not in the back. Bob's killer waited -- Dominik chronicles this assassination, too -- until he turned around, then blew a 12-gauge rathole in his throat. He was 32. The man he'd so famously killed was 34.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (160 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for strong violence and brief sexual references.

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