JUST LIKE JESSE JAMES – by James Mottram
Stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and director Andrew Dominik get under the skin of two Wild West legends in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
As you might expect from a western about one of America’s most famous outlaws, it left its filmmakers in rebellious mood. Take the mouthful of a title, almost as long as its two-and-a-half-hour running time. “It was the title of the book (by Ron Hansen),” shrugs director Andrew Dominik. “It’s a typical 19th century title. Some people think the movie is too long, the title is too long. But we liked the title. There seemed to be no reason to change it.” Brad Pitt, who produces the film and stars as Jesse James, concurs. “Me, personally, I’m fond of the title too because the film deals with the dissection of that myth of Jesse James, and that myth of Robert Ford, the coward. I think it’s exquisite.”
While the title may be something of a giveaway regarding the action to come, their devotion to it shows just how faithful the film-makers intended to be when it came to Hansen’s historical text, which recounts the James gang in their final months. “My whole exposure to Jesse james comes from the book,” explains Dominik.
“The main thing I was trying to do was translate ron Hansen’s image of those people into a movie. Everything in the film is historicall accurate. Every event that takes place.. there are some minor discrepancies if you go back to the source material but it’s pretty much straight ahead. But I guess Jesse James as a character didn’t particularly interest me until I read the book.”
While Pitt doesn’t go so far to say that, he confesses he knew little of his character before beginning the film. “I wasn’t so familair with the legend, other than the Robin Hood aspect of it all,” he reveals, which might seems strange given he was born in Oklahoma and raised in Missouri–Jesse James’s old stomping ground, in other words. “But I am quite familair, of course, with the area, the inflections, the canter and the cadence,” he adds, “and it gave me great pleasure because I hadn’t been able to do something that was a tribute to that area before.” Typically, however, the movie was not actually filmed there, with the shoot taking place in Canada.
Originally shot in late 2005, the film endured a turbulent post-production period. For starters, Dominik was forced to wait for a whole year to shoot some extra exterior material, due to the fact that a large portion of the film takes place outside in autumn and winter. At least Pitt, with his production company Plan B behind the film, was on hand to support Dominik and the film, which morphed through an extraordinary 40 cuts before it reached its final one. “I actually liked the first cut, which was four-and-a-half hours long,” says the actor, “but we didn’t think people would have a lot of tolerance for it!”
Despite the fact that Pitt won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival for the role, the US critics have already been divided about the film and it’s (even now) sizable running time. The LA Times’s Kenneth Turan, for example, called it ‘indulgent’ and ‘unwieldy’, though Pitt is obviously not in agreement. “This is a very complex, complicated film, a film that is not a part of the current zeitgeist,” he argues. “To me, it’s a throwback to some of our greater films of the Seventies. I think it’s a delicious film that sits and breathes like good wine. It is, ultimately, my favourite kind of storytelling.”
One thing most have been in agreement with is the impressive performance put in by Casey Affleck, as James’ friend and – ultimately – killer, Robert Ford. “I guess I first got into the role by reading the book and then reading the terrific adaptation by Andrew,” Affleck notes. “I didn’t really approach it as playing someone who was a coward or a victim or a traitor. In part, due to the things that Andrew said, I tried to think of him as someone who thought of himself as more than that, as having heroic qualities, and seeing himself as more than how other people saw him. But in general whatever is complex it’s attrbutable to Andrew’s very clear direction.”
In the case of both Pitt and Affleck, it was Dominik’s debut film Chopper (2000) that convinced them to join up with the kiwi-born director on this elegiac journey. Ironically, that film also dealt with an infamous criminal, in the shape of Australian thug Mark Brandon Read, who was similarly obsessed with his own mythology. “I guess there are similarities between the two movies,” admits Dominik. “In Chopper’s case, celebrity was not necessarily such a bad thing for him. He was a person who wanted attention and in getting it, it seemed to heal him in some way. But I’m not sure if this movie has that much to say about celebrity.”
If anything, you might say the film is more a meditation on the nature of isolation as much as anything else. “What I really liked about the movie is the people struggle with themselves more than they do with each other, and they don’t really see each other,” says Dominik. “Bob is a person who imagines that he was Jesse James it would be like armour that would protect him from his hurt feelings and I think that Jesse looks at the situation from the opposite angle. The armour is the thing that keeps him locked away from everybody else. But it’s an unusual relationship.”
Indeed, despite all the trappings, it may not even be a western. “Andrew once said it was more of a gangster film than a western and I think that’s more apropos,” says Pitt. That said, following dozens of actors, from Tyrone Power to Colin Farrell, who have previously played the role of Jesse James, Pitt was aware of the tradition he was steeped in. “I think it may be true that there’s no other character that’s been portrayed more often in a film,” he says. “And apparently no Jesse James film has ever lost money,” Will this be the same? With an estimated budget of some $30 million, this most certainly remains to be seen.