Some films are classics from the moment they are released. Jaws was one of these films, as too were Star Wars and Jurassic Park. But for some films, it can take years, maybe even decades, before they achieve this kind of status. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo are the most famous examples. Both films that were unsuccessful at the time – Vertigo was even considered one of Hitchcock’s worse – but are now regarded as some of the medium’s greatest achievements. In recent years, a similar thing has happened with Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which has gone from being considered a rare misfire to one of his best works, and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls which has transformed from a Razzie winner to one of the best movies of the 1990s.
Another film that is going through something of a re-evaluation at the moment, a film that is slowly being thought of as one of the best movies in modern cinema, is director Andrew Dominik’s sophomore film The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. It’s an achingly beautiful, gorgeously composed and hauntingly contemplative revolutionist western about the real-life relationship between Ford and James which culminated in the latter’s murder.
In the New Zealand director’s follow up to Chopper, which has just arrived on Amazon Prime Instant Video this week, we are introduced to Robert Ford on the eve of the Blue Cut train robbery, the last to be performed by Jesse James and his gang. In a pathetically frayed suit and a hat two sizes too big, Robert fidgets through the crew’s campsite hoping for an opportunity to speak to his idol Jesse before the heist. The youngest brother in an impoverished family that routinely humiliate him, Robert sees Jesse as a symbol of everything he wants to be: respected, feared and famous. To ride with him would be an opportunity to prove his worth, to finally live the life he has always wanted to.
Robert is eventually permitted to join them for the night and he supports Jesse in the robbery of the passenger train – one of the finest sequences ever committed to film, shot largely in silhouette by legendary DoP Roger Deakins amid the train’s smoke. It is far from the roaring and triumphant action sequence one might expect from a Jesse James western. Instead it is moody, atmospheric, and builds to an unexpectedly dark conclusion as James clubs a noble train conductor before nearly putting a bullet in him. What we get here is a glimpse of Jesse James as he really was; a far cry from the larger-than-life hero of dime novels and pulp fiction but a dark, tortured man with many complexities.
Jesse’s menace in this haunting scene initially does not stop the wide-eyed Robert from worshiping his idol. When he is invited to help Jesse move to a new safehouse in the days following the fruitless robbery and the gang’s disbandment he meets it with a childlike excitement. He studies every move Jesse makes, every word Jesse says and privately hopes that the outlaw will adopt him on a permanent basis. “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” Jesse later presses him. In the Blue Cut aftermath, James is prone to these kind of dark introspections. He is aware that there is a price on his head, he knows the law is chasing down his former crew-members, and the list of people he can trust is growing ever smaller. It has sent Jesse into a state of paranoia and depression. He is soon driven to suspect his former gang member’s motives. Especially Robert’s.
Soon, Robert Ford begins to witness what the audience did during the Blue Cut robbery: Jesse James is not the heroic superman he thought he was; he’s just a human being with the same flaws as everyone else. Thus, the stage is set for the infamous murder of James. The film leaves Robert’s motives open for interpretation at this point based on all of the events that have occurred beforehand. Did he do it out of misplaced anger and heartbreak about who is hero really is? Did he do it for fear of his own safety as the murderous James became increasingly paranoid? Did he do it in his desire to emulate Jesse James and achieve this celebrity?
The blurred lines between myth and reality, and fame and infamy, are what the film explores as the relationship between Ford and James becomes increasingly strained to the point that it snaps in this chilling moment. It makes for a film that is far removed from the clichés of the western, where morality is often simplistic and clear-cut. Similarly unconventional is the character driven, meditative and mournful approach director Andrew Dominik takes to explore it. It is less indebted to Clint Eastwood and John Wayne and is more inspired by the films of Terrence Malick (to whom Dominik was assistant director on The New World).