Robert Ford is an archetypal American traitor. If an American Dante were to stock his Inferno with his fellow nationals, we might expect to find Bob, if not his brother Charlie, smack at the bottom, gnawed on by an icebound Satan along with Benedict Arnold and John Wilkes Booth. In his time, he was seen not only as a traitor but as a conspirator and a mercenary. The most interesting thing I found out while researching the historical side of this review was the way the "assassination" of Jesse James impacted the career of Missouri governor T. T. Crittenden. In 1886, four years after Ford killed James, Crittenden was being considered for a diplomatic post. President Grover Cleveland rejected him, reportedly explaining that people back east would object because of Crittenden's role in James's death. Regardless of what people thought of James, many recoiled from a politician's employment of hired killers to solve a law-enforcement problem. Imagine if an elected official today was revealed to have hired a hit squad to take out alleged terrorists on American soil. Some would lionize him, but many others would condemn him. The people who made the latter of the two movies discussed below may have understood or even encouraged the analogy; they at least play up the political aspect of James's death more than the other film does.
But while the men who did that theoretical official's dirty work might be vilified as mercenaries or mere thugs, they certainly wouldn't be thought of as traitors, even if they were "radical" Muslims turning on their own kind. Bob Ford endured as a villain in the American consciousness long after the scandal surrounding Crittenden was forgotten mainly because he was seen as a traitor of the most venal kind. But Americans also have a tendency to play devil's advocate. There's a curiosity about why people do wicked things, why they betray, even if it boils down to a banal assumption that everyone has his reasons. You see it in the reluctance in many Jesus movies to portray Judas as a pure villain. Of our proposed victims in the lowest circle of American Hell, probably only Booth is denied this kind of consideration (as far as I know). So it was probably inevitable that at least one writer would follow up on the folk singer's rhetorical wondering and attempt to reconstruct what made Ford tick, what he really thought of James, and how he felt about what he did to the bandit antihero.
Samuel Fuller's first film as a director. Despite the title, the movie isn't told by Ford in the first person or even fully from his point of view. Ford's story is sometimes overshadowed by the fitful romance of the two figures who with him form a triangle; his fictional girlfriend Cynthy the saloon singer (Barbara Britton) and sometime lawman Kelly, a figure very loosely based on the man who actually killed Ford in 1892. Kelly is played by Preston Foster, an implausible leading man at the time but top-billed just the same. Ford is played by John Ireland, who'd just made an impression in Red River the year before and would make another in All the King's Men. He looks a little old to play Bob, but that actually adds emphasis to the quasi-oedipal motivation Fuller gives him.
Bob Ford (John Ireland) is torn between two kinds of love, for Barbara Britton (above) and Reed Hadley (below) in I Shot Jesse James.
Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) seems almost by design the opposite of Fuller's film. Dominik's film is lavishly budgeted while Fuller's is an indy B film. Assassination is almost exactly twice as long as I Shot, and the proportions of pre and post-assassination story are reversed, 3/4 of Fuller's film playing out after James's death while Dominik dedicates only about 1/5 of his epic to the aftermath. At first, Assassination promises a drastically different interpretation of Robert Ford, but in broadest terms both films come to the same conclusion about him.
In the middle of this, there's a bathtub scene, either a homage to the Fuller film or just another version of a historical incident. There's no back scrubbing, though. Instead, Jesse uses this moment to ask Bob, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" By this point in the story, the answer is probably neither. The major difference in content between Assassination and I Shot is that the later film gives Bob plenty of reasons to repudiate Jesse. For all we know, Fuller's Jesse James is no more and no less than the folk hero turned patriarch. Dominik and Brad Pitt's Jesse is gradually revealed to us as a monster. His constant sense of bemusement emerges as a depthless contempt for everyone around him. He's a genial paranoid who infects everyone around him with fear and distrust of each other. It'll sound strange to some of you, but the long, brilliantly written and acted scenes when Jesse probes for weaknesses, embarrassments and self-betrayals reminded me of nothing so much as accounts I've read of the inner circle of Josef Stalin, where the dictator enjoyed seeing his cronies make abject asses of themselves, while they understood that the wrong word could cost them their lives. The big difference is that Jesse James settled scores in a hands-on manner; maybe he was more like Saddam Hussein in that respect. At the same time, Dominik's Jesse has a clear death wish, as if his paranoia about betrayal was in part a matter of wishful thinking. It's as if he felt there was nothing left for him but to wait for murder, so he might as well make a game of it and enjoy himself a little longer. Brad Pitt nails the subtlety of James's menace, playing the legendary outlaw as something more sinister than the legend without turning him into a blatant psycho. I've liked Pitt best in his smaller comic roles, when he abandons the cool of stardom (he's brilliant in Burn After Reading, for instance), but for now Jesse James is the best work I've seen from him.
Nearly everyone treats Bob (Casey Affleck, on the floor) like a child in The Assassination of Jesse James, including Jesse (Brad Pitt, on the couch)
Art imitates Art imitating Life: John Ireland prepares to make his exit (above), while Casey Affleck prepares to take a bow (below)
Beyond its interesting conception of Bob's motivation and Ireland's earnest interpretation of it, I Shot Jesse James is weighed down by its lacklustre love triangle and the narrative limitations of a first-time director. It opens dynamically with an aborted bank robbery and has a fair climax as Foster enrages Ireland by showing him his back, but Fuller's early attempt at an adult western is a pale preview of the genre explosion unleashed by Anthony Mann and others just a year later. I felt that way before I saw The Assassination, so please don't think I'm judging a B movie in light of an A. As for Dominik's film, it lived up to its slow-building reputation as the best western of the past decade. It is lavishly visualized in classic widescreen style in a manner that had seemed to die with the debacle of Heaven's Gate. Roger Deakins's cinematography is stunning in nearly every scene, but particularly in an early train-robbery sequence that presents the passage of the night train through the woods as a spectral apparition attended by hooded spirits of the darkness. How's that for poetry? Trust me, Deakins's visual work is much more poetic, and dramatic. Kudos are also owed to art director Troy Sizemore and everyone else who contributed to the film's classic look. This is only Dominik's second feature. That may look like he's far ahead of where Fuller was when he made his Ford movie, but the older director's overall record is still something Dominik can only aspire to match for now. At least Dominik can say he made one of the best American films of 2007, that best of many recent years for American film. He has me looking forward to his future work.