Imagine I Shot Andy Warhol as a Western. You don’t need to have seen I Shot Andy Warhol. You only need to know what everyone knows about one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century: that he was legend, that he wasn’t who he wanted to be. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about one type of man, embodied by two seemingly different men. It is about a man who is rotted from the inside; by doubt, by hate, by paranoia about those around him. A man with no friends and nothing to his credit save what others see in him. This is a movie about fame.
There is no glory in Jesse James. The story begins with the last robbery the James gang ever successfully carried out. Bob Ford joins the gang with the intention of making a name for himself as an outlaw. But he has come too late. Frank and Jesse James are hardly on speaking terms. Every other original member of the gang is locked up, or dead. So what follows can hardly be a classic Western. Instead, we watch the gradual unravelling of the James gang. Here, it isn’t so much the coming of the modern world that signals the end of the Wild West, it’s the onset of age, and introspection.
Brad Pitt is not the hero of this movie any more than Casey Affleck is. To all outward appearances he might be better looking, wiser, more at ease with himself, but he is not Tyler Durden riding high in the saddle, he’s a louse. Pitt is ideal casting here for paradoxically the same reason he was ideal casting in Fight Club: he’s a fantasy object. The paradox in Jesse James is that he is also repellent, never more so than to himself. Jesse James in this movie is a man who beats children, betrays friends, preys on the weak and the good with relish, and is revered – because no-one sees all that he is.
Casey Affleck plays his Victorian stalker role with unabashed self-loathing, making him the perfect mirror for Pitt. What is inside Jesse is painted clear on Bob Ford – the queasiness of fame, the unsightliness of wanting to be seen so badly. Affleck is just right here because he is handsome on the turn, only just not-ugly. He has a smile that’s like milk curdling. He looks at Jesse like a jealous lover. Bob Ford is something like Bob De Niro in The King of Comedy, he’s the desperation of fame, the cheapness of it. He makes people uncomfortable because he doesn’t hide what’s wrong with him. To a man like Jesse James, Bob Ford either courageously cowardly, or simply as cheap a human being as Jesse would want in an assassin. Whatever the case, it’s clear that Jesse wants Bob Ford to kill him, to take up the mantle of America’s most famous killer.
Director Andrew Dominik does quite unbelievable work in this movie. Everything that made his debut, Chopper, a wonder is present (the sudden violence, the scenes we never see – of what happens after sudden violence – beautifully realised), but this is also one of most visually stimulating movies of the year. Imagine Terrence Malick at his best, or the way David Gordon Green might approach a Western. The movie is shot like a recollected dream of the West. It’s languid, even in the winter scenes. The pace is from some other time, one before “stately” became a euphemism. Everything happens deliberately. This is a movie for people who delight in sepia.
Every revisionist Western needs a fulcrum; whether it’s about the conflict between technology and tradition or how many Bon Jovi songs you can shoehorn into a movie (sorry Young Guns). To take fame as a starting point is as good a place to examine the West. For Americans, Jesse James and his ilk is where fame began. So what of Bob Ford? Is he us? I certainly had sympathy for him by the end. But Bob Ford isn’t here to be a cautionary tale of vicarious living, he’s a tragedy. No one learns anything by the end of Jesse James, except that every legend is the same, and no-one takes the spotlight without forfeit.