Friday, April 3, 2009

The assassination of Brad Pitt

The New York Times for April 4, 1882 led with the breathless headline JESSE JAMES SHOT DOWN. KILLED BY ONE OF HIS CONFEDERATES WHO CLAIMS TO BE A DETECTIVE.

Dateline: St. Joseph, MO., April 3. A great sensation was created in this city this morning by the announcement that Jesse James, the notorious bandit and train-robber, had been shot and killed here. The news spread with great rapidity, but most persons received it with doubts until investigation established the fact beyond question...

The most famous outlaw in American history had been laid low by a two-bit Judas named Robert Ford, later immortalized in American song as "that dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard." The events of that April morning quickly passed into legend and became fodder for all manner of dramatic reimaginings. Ford and his brother Charley appeared in a traveling stage show reenactment that ended abruptly when Charley Ford took his own life, it was said, out of remorse for his role in the killing. Robert Ford continued to trade on his notoriety until he himself was felled in 1892 by shotgun-wielding Edward O'Kelley. Apparently O'Kelley thought that being the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James was his ticket out of obscurity. The cycle of violence had come full circle.

These events are impressionistically presented by director Andrew Dominik in the awkwardly named The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, and starring Brad Pitt as the outlaw and Casey Affleck -- in an astonishing performance -- as the young admirer-turned-assassin. My review from October 2007 is here. My admiration for the movie has grown with subsequent viewings. Some found it overly pretentious (and slow), but I see it as a worthy addition to an enduring American legend and to a style of contemplative cinema associated with Terrence Malick. This film isn't afraid to wear its 1970s heart proudly on its sleeve! Here's the climactic scene, with James all but inviting Ford to do the deed. The third actor here is Sam Rockwell playing Charley.

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