Friday, November 02, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James-- Bad Boys, Bad Boys Whatcha Gonna Do?

Jesse James was an outlaw. Indeed he was a ruthless killer and thief. He was also the son of a Baptist minister, and a family man. He led two lives-- one as Thomas Howard, and one as the bad hombre outlaw. He knew the Bible through and through, often quoted it as well. And a movie has finally been made that does some justice to the scope and complexity of both the man and his persona. It also does a masterful job of telling the story of how he came to be killed by another interesting character-- Robert Ford.

Jesse is played by Brad Pitt (who likely had a dog in this fight since he grew up in Missouri, which was the home region of James as well), and Ford by Casey Affleck, who, as with the movie 'Gone Baby Gone' has produced another powerful performance. One of these performance should get Affleck an Oscar nomination. Pitt may be in line for one as well.

The story actually begins at the end of James' train robbing career. More specifically it begins with the robbery of the last train job done by the James Gang, namely at Blue Cut Missouri. And actually it wasn't much worth it, as things turned out. Most of the earlier James Gang was incarcerated or dead by the time, and the riffraff that James had picked up for this job were by no means entirely loyal, and the end result was James became an outlaw on the run, who would soon enough run out of time.

The cinematography of this film is spectacular and mystical in some respect-- time slows down at crucial junctures and we see through a glass darkly. This makes the film seem even longer than its 2 hours and 40 minutes, but it is worth watching. It is not actually a film all about killing and robbing. Indeed, it could hardly be called much of an action film at all. It is more of a character study of two interesting, and immoral men, both with a lust for fame and fortune. Ford is the hero worshipper of James, and considerably his junior (James is in his 30s, Ford only 19 when their paths first cross in Missouri). Alas, the James of the nickel novels and story books is not actually the full or real deal, as Ford was to discover. At a crucial juncture in the film James asks Ford-- "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" It often seems that the answer is the latter, and that in turn requires that eventually James be taken off the scene once and for all.

In some ways this film is Hitchcockian in character, as it plays up and plays on the psychological dynamics of two unbalanced or imbalanced men, and we see both the desire and dread in their eyes over and over again. James is world weary by the time we catch up with him in this film, but Ford is a young man on the make. It is revealing that after he killed James, Ford actually appeared in the NY Theater as himself, with his own brother playing James-- re-enacting over 800 times the way he gunned Jesse James down! But a strange thing happened on the way to fame and fortune for Mr. Ford-- instead of becoming adored, applauded, or even thanked by the widows of James' victims, he became despised, and portrayed as a Judas figure-- one who betrayed the American Robin Hood who took from the rich and gave to the poor. Never mind that Jesse James was not a noble figure. Americans did not like betrayers then (Ford gunned down James in his own home, with the wife and children at home, while he was cleaning a picture and did not have his gun on. He also shot him from behind), any better than they do now. As fate would have it, Ford met his own demise in his own saloon in Colorado various years later, and his killer was pardoned by the state governor, as the action was widely applauded as just vengeance on a Judas.

It is interesting that we have had two excellent westerns in this fall's crop of films (see the review of the 3:10 to Yuma film previously on this blog), and they are very different films indeed, with the James film being far more cerebral and thought provoking.

This film reminds us of something, we were also reminded of in the other recent Affleck film-- that murder is murder, who ever is doing the shooting, and whoever is the victim. And as such, it is sin. Two wrongs do not make a right, and one sin does not clean up the damage of another, nor does it bring back the dead or undo the previous damage. The Jesse James film intends to remind us of the very grave cost of taking a life, all the while reminding us of that Biblical message-- 'be sure your sins will (in due course) find you out', or as Jesse puts it in the film, 'when one's iniquity has reached its fullness'.

This is an adult film well worth seeing and pondering, especially since it raises the whole question about America's darker side, it's gangster and outlaw heritage and culture, and why exactly our nation has always been fascinated by outlaws, and has even frequently lionized them.


Ben Witherington said...

In the it is a truly small world, my friend Nancy Lagow Dumas from Texas just wrote me a note telling me Jesse James used to hang out (hide out) on her relative's farm-- here's the gist of her note--

"I just read your blog note on Jesse James. I will share a little Lagow trivia with you. Both my great-grandfather and grandfather were very good fiddlers—winning most of the fiddle contests in east Texas. When Jesse James and Belle Star came to Dallas (the story goes to hide out) they would stay with great-grandfather on the Hunnicut farm. Then ride together into Dallas to their favorite saloon where gg Hunnicutt would play the fidlle, Belle Star would sing and dance."

And Dat's All I have to say about dat.

Ben W.

Charles said...

Great review - I saw it this weekend in Amarillo. It has quit running in Austin... Pitt's performance, and Affleck's, were both masterful.

I loved the line that said something to the effect of "His son never knew his real name." Imagine the duality of being Jesse James and your son not even knowing.