Westerns have always done a really good job of telling you as much about the decade they’re in as they do telling you about the decade in which they’re set. Westerns catch something in the air, realising it in the material even if it’s not necessarily the filmmakers’ intent. In the 1950s Westerns exuded or examined the Eisenhower era perceived American exceptionalism. In the ‘60s and ‘70s the genre was draped in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement, the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the corresponding zeitgeist of cynicism.
In the wake of the ‘Revisionist Western’ era, the genre retreated; relinquishing its foundational position in U.S culture (and all places dominated by U.S. cultural consumption). Consequently, Western movies (and premium TV like the seminal Deadwood) are a fascinating window into U.S. (and broadly Western) culture. It seems that like white blood cells, Westerns appear to converge in times of great flux. Between 2004-2007 a flurry of classic Westerns emerged across film and television.
This column, the first of a series, focuses on one that arrived on international screens a decade ago in September; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Although the Western genre is something quintessentially American, other nations like Australia share an affinity for the form. We also struggle with the distinction between discovery and conquest of a young nation; with troublesome foundational myths when colonialism clearly attempted to eradicate an enduring indigenous culture; and particularly a sprawl of a country that occupies a thin green corridor around an expanse of wilderness. Enter Australian writer and director Andrew Dominik, whose explosive debut Chopper in 2000, is a 94 minute, devilishly quotable and altogether fantastical account of Melbourne underground crime figure Mark Chopper Read. Eric Bana’s star making performance elevated the factually questionable activities that Read published in his series of novels into legendary status. After myth making with Chopper, it took Dominik seven years to undertake the myth-busting exercise of America’s most beloved outlaw Jesse James, which is a thematic orbit around Dominik’s fascination – infamy.
In 2007, climate change was permeating the vernacular. Early signs of recession and impending Global Financial Crises swelled like a growing low-pressure system. George W. Bush was the President and conflict raged in Afghanistan and Iraq. And finally, as social media began to flourish, viral outlaws emerged in mass shootings like the Virginia Tech Massacre.
Chopper shifts from a subjective, often extremely absurd account of striving to attain “outlaw” status. Assassination has two very distinct modes of storytelling. The first sees Dominik develop visual signposts with a camera lens that looks like you’re viewing the world through a grubby mason jar. Overlaid with the liquid, yet matter-of-fact narration by Hugh Ross, these moments in time are the snippets of the mythic outlaw Jesse James.
The second becomes apparent in the performances. Brad Pitt is so deft as James because he’s able to strike the statuesque outlaw posture, devolve into sociopathy and wield those piercing blue eyes that coaxed innocent men into confessions of guilt. As a contrast, he’s also able to be fascinated with a woman performer who snorts noodles up her nose, leaning into a flat out dullard side that causes Sam Shepard’s Frank to dub him ‘dingus,’ and falling apart when a firm interrogation of a young man makes him see how he’s being perceived in the latter days of his fame.
Assassination briefly glances past James’ southern roots; implying that the miniature rebellion perhaps is one of the surrender of the southern states to the union; an interesting fact in the context of recent events in Charlottesville.
The desperate gaze of Casey Affleck’s Bob Ford is one that the audience is forced to continually occupy. Affleck’s Bob Ford adoration for Jesse James hurts. It hurts in the realisation of his humanity, it hurts because Bob reeks of parasitic energy. Bob’s decision to take James’ life may have outwardly been to collect his thirty pieces of silver, but there’s something so much deeper. Dominik forces the audience to see James’ surrender to the idea that he’s cannibalised his former crew with paranoia, surrender to the idea that who he had become was going to incentivise the cowardly like Bob, and finally in the act of death take a swift shot to the head and crash to the ground in an unglamorous slump; to be fawned at in disbelief by his wife Zee James (Mary-Louise Parker).
Assassination constantly asks the audience to recognise the folklore amongst the facts. In John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is asked by a curious newspaper man – Maxwell Scott (Carleton Young) – why he’s attending the funeral of a little known cowboy named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). When Scott hears the answer to the eponymous question the following exchange occurs:
Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?
Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
Assassination is a deeply felt appreciation for American outlaw myth making and morality. After a decade of military occupation and political cynicism, Assassination is courageous enough to scrutinise legends and curs alike.
A Michael Mann fanatic all the time, Blake Howard is an Aussie film writer, editor and member of the Online Film Critics Society. Co-founder of the acclaimed Australian film website Graffiti with Punctuation, he offers articulate analysis across the gamut of cinema from blockbusters to indies galore.
A former co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, he’s also behind the top-rating film podcasts such as Pod Save Our Screen and The Debrief, a freelance contributor to outlets from Penthouse to ABC News 24, and a co-host of the weekly ‘Gaggle of Geeks’ on 2SER radio.