Meeting Your Heroes, by Bob Connally

29 May

“Never meet your heroes.” It’s a phrase and a sentiment that we are all familiar with because there are some unfortunate souls who have met a celebrity or an inspirational figure and ended up gravely disappointed. Not many of us however have had that disappointment echo through history the way young Robert Ford’s did.

By September of 1881 the glory days of the James Gang are far behind them. Only Frank James (Sam Shepard) and his younger brother Jesse (Brad Pitt) remain from the original crew with the rest either dead or in prison. For their train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri, Frank and Jesse have enlisted the help of, “petty thieves and country rubes culled from the local hillsides.” They include Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt, No Country For Old Men), Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider, Parks and Recreation), a cousin of the James brothers by the name of Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). Tagging along with Charley is his 19-year old brother Bob (Casey Affleck), a young man who knows all there is to know about the American legend Jesse James. Who he does not know is the man.

After a successful train robbery, Jesse takes Bob into his home and life but Bob’s off-putting nature gets him sent away in relatively short order. Over the following months, Bob’s estimation of his hero falls with each encounter as Jesse belittles him. Jesse meanwhile, becomes increasingly paranoid, terrorizing his former compatriots, suspecting each of wanting to turn him in for a substantial government reward. Jesse does not take Bob seriously, but no one has a stronger motivation for turning him in- or killing him- than Bob does.

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (the severely underrated Killing Them Softly), The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is based upon the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen. The dialogue and the narration that runs through the film have a literary sound. There is a colorful, archaic nature to the words that immerses us more fully into the world of these characters. We know we have to really pay attention but more importantly we want to. Still, it all sounds very authentic. I’m hard-pressed to think of any other movie where people speak quite the way they do here.

That dialogue is spoken by characters we get fully invested in thanks to an extraordinary cast. At its heart, Assassination is a dual character study of Jesse and Bob, the weary legend and the obsessed hero-worshipper. As Bob and Charley’s brother Wilbur (Pat Healy) puts it, “In Europe, there are only two Americans they know for sure. Mark Twain and Jesse James.” The nature of celebrity was of course far different in 1881 than it is now, which is to say that Jesse James was a rarity both in America and around the world. Bob Ford had spent his youth reading dime novels about Jesse’s exploits as though they were simply the adventures of a heroic man. Being a thief and a murderer (17 people by Jesse’s own estimation) was something that he had become lionized for. There would no doubt have been many people at that moment in history who would have greatly envied Bob Ford’s relationship with Jesse James.

Jesse’s status as a living legend is one of the more fascinating aspects of this film. For this reason he could really only have been properly played by a movie star of Pitt’s status. Giving the performance of his career, Pitt’s eyes speak volumes and we see many sides to Jesse James, but Pitt never fully lets us in, just as Jesse never fully lets anyone in, even his own family. Whenever it seems we have Jesse figured out, Pitt takes him in a surprising- but always believable- direction. He makes the man unknowable as celebrities and legends truly are for those of us who know them only as public figures. Pitt also shows us Jesse as utterly terrifying. There’s real menace in every interaction that isn’t with his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) or their two children.

Most of the accolades and awards nominations for The Assassination of Jesse James went to Affleck as the Coward Robert Ford. Unlike Charley, whom Jesse states is “sorta easy to be around,” Bob is unnerving as he studies Jesse’s clothing and mannerisms for just a little bit too long. “I can’t figure it out,” Jesse remarks to him very early in their acquaintanceship. “Do you wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?” Like Pitt, Affleck is able to convey an incredible amount with just his eyes or a facial twitch. Affleck shows us Bob Ford as a kid getting in over his head as he tries to convince the world- and himself- that he’s every bit the equal of his childhood hero.

Despite the title, the film doesn’t try to pit the audience against Bob nor, thankfully, does it try to get us to see Jesse James the way Bob and so many others did at that time. Dominik doesn’t condone or champion Jesse James as some sort of misunderstood antihero. The man on screen is undeniably a sadistic killer and while Bob Ford is not exactly someone to root for, he’s easier to have a little bit of sympathy towards.

The closest thing to a truly likable character in the film is Charley. Sam Rockwell is most likely my favorite actor working today and he’s absolutely extraordinary in a performance that unfortunately often gets lost in the shuffle when people talk about this movie. Possessing neither the intelligence nor the ambition of his younger brother, Charley is a man who is just happy to be there. It’s not that he’s looking to bask in the reflected glory of Jesse James the way so many others do, it’s that he doesn’t really have a clear goal or direction in life. He’s just happy to float along and this is where the tide has taken him. In this film, Rockwell perfects what I call the “Please don’t kill me,” smile. As the story moves along he becomes acutely aware of the danger he and his brother are in being around Jesse. He’s doing and saying whatever he can to keep both Bob and himself alive.

The supporting cast is excellent, from Dillahunt, Schneider, Renner, Shepard, Parker, and Healy to Ted Levine and the late Michael Parks. Each gives depth to their roles and to the world they inhabit.

What makes The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford quite possibly the best film so far of the 21st century is that while it boasts an incredible screenplay and astonishing acting it is also as purely cinematic as movies come. This is evident from very early on as the James Gang awaits their targeted train in the dark. As the sight and sound of pebbles rattling on the tracks gives way to the soft light of the train coming around the bend we can feel the goosebumps Robert Ford must be feeling as he and the others stand at the ready in their masks. It’s a beautifully crafted and immersive sequence thanks in no small part to the cinematography of Roger Deakins (who received one of his thirteen Oscar nominations here) and the musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (Hell or High Water).

That sequence and the subsequent robbery itself are indicative of the entire film that follows. For a companion film I would have to suggest Michael Mann’s Heat. Both films are dual character studies that are epic in scope and the characters never get lost in the large scale filmmaking. There’s an even greater intimacy to the studies of Jesse and Bob and this movie than there are of McCauley and Lt. Hanna in Heat. This becomes especially clear as Dominik builds to the assassination itself. Bob and Charley are terrified not only of Jesse being two steps ahead of them (which he actually is) but of what will happen if they are to succeed in the legally sanctioned betrayal and murder of a man who’s taken them into his home.

Over the course of the movie it becomes increasingly obvious that there is something very wrong with Jesse’s state of mind. His paranoia and violent outbursts are followed by fits of crying or of laughter. “There’s just no peace when ol’ Jesse’s around,” he tells Charley at one point, and later in a moment of utter sincerity with Bob he says, “[I] look at my red hands and my mean face and I wonder about that man who’s gone so wrong. I’ve been becoming a problem to myself.” It is also in this scene that Jesse gifts Bob with the pistol that will ultimately kill him and it is at this moment that we realize that while Jesse has been suicidal for a while he is thinking about his legacy. At least as this film presents it, Bob Ford was only ever able to kill Jesse James because Jesse chose to allow him to do so. The assassination scene is haunting and tragic as Jesse accepts that his life could never end on good terms, nor would he deserve that. The greater tragedy is that in his death he cemented young Bob Ford’s status as someone who would be forever vilified.

The last half hour of this two hour and forty minute film shows the aftermath of Jesse’s murder. It seems that there was an inevitability to the fates of Bob and Charley, both of whom would be dead within the following decade. Charley by his own hand two years later and Bob the victim of a man named Edward O’Kelley in 1892. O’Kelley had never known Jesse or Bob and, “had no grand scheme. No strategy. …Nothing but a vague longing for glory and a generalized wish for revenge against Robert Ford.” At one time Bob had told Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel) that he had expected “applause” for killing the notorious Jesse James. But all that the world could see was the man who had shot an American legend in the back. He and Charley would prove to be Jesse’s final victims from beyond the grave.

Over the final ten years of his young life Bob, “would receive so many menacing letters that he could read them without any reaction except curiosity. …There would be no eulogies for Bob, …no biographies would be written about him, no children would be named after him… The shotgun would ignite, and…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.”

2007 was a special year for movies. No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, and Ratatouille, just to name a few. (I’m not done with 2007 on this list of favorites either.) But if I had to pick one movie as the true best of the bunch and as I said earlier, quite possibly the best movie so far of the 21st century, it’s this. Every element comes together from the writing to the performances to the cinematography and editing to the sound and heartbreaking musical score. Each element contributes to and enhances the overall film. This is not just an excellent and endlessly watchable movie, it demonstrates what the medium is capable of at is best.

One Response to “Meeting Your Heroes, by Bob Connally”

  1. Robert Hornak June 8, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    Just happened to see it the other day, then saw you’d written it up here. Great review, and one that feels like there’s still so much to say – much like the film. It’s incredibly immersive from start to finish and perfectly dismantles the folly of hero worship. I’d just seen Unforgiven (for the ??th time) a week before. That dismantling-of-the-western-hero theme is pervasive in both. They’d make a nice double feature. “Nice”? Let’s say riveting and exhausting, but great.

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