Once Upon A Time In The West. A Fist Full Of Dollars. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Unforgiven. Few genres can boast such iconic titles as this one. Even this year, in a couple of arguable straddlers, we have There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men. But there is something about this film’s title that embraces more of the feeling of the Western than any other: these ten words, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, evoke more than just their subject; they bring a lost quality of spoken language back to light and set up an often abandoned philosophy of filmic storytelling into the bargain – taking time.
You think you know how it’s going to end before it even starts, but you don’t, even though the inevitability of one particular death is always kept at the front of your mind by the narration. It is seemingly the voice of the wild west itself, mentioning details ahead of time like an old man afraid that he will lose them from his memory before he reaches their proper place in things. In the technical telling of a tale on the screen, this is a beautifully realised world. The archaic and the modern and the western are merged; fades to black at the end of “chapters” lead into blurring lenses half focused on bleak landscapes and Klimt-forests; a veneer of civilisation, then on to mud-and-huts frontier survival; the stunning play of slight, man-made light on total starless night – the feeble amber glow of candles and the ghostly radiance of a doomed train approaching its moment in history.
Incidental characters like the aloof elder brother, Frank James, who departs the story early never to return, fill this world with authentic life; they animate it, despite frequently inexpressive souls, impassive faces. Here are a core of men at war with each other’s baseness, feeding their needs to fuck or hoard or to be relied upon, and have a friend who makes them greater than their limited parts by association. In Wood Hite, who assumes a closeness where there is none, and Ed Miller, who lives in fear, and the forever bird-dogging Dick Liddil, and the other significant brother, simple needy Charlie Ford, there are characters worth studying, insects for the microscope, waiting to be crushed.
This is, however, of course, really the story of only two men. Jesse James is a glorious empty vessel waiting to be filled by his fearsome sides; the boyish attraction belonging to a man totally at ease amongst his fellows, then the blood-pounding psychotic – unless it is nothing more than the mixing of circumstance with the highs and lows of a disordered mentality. Without sexual performance or a female audience he oozes the appeal; the clear pack leader, half lusted for by all men even if they don’t understand it to be the case; even if they mask it from afar as hatred for a criminal, they still crowd to be near him when the one opportunity arises. To break from the embrace of the story for a moment: Brad Pitt shows again, as in Interview With A Vampire and Fight Club, strange shades of homo-eroticism that few mainstream actors or their films would dare to embody.
And then there is the so called coward, Robert Ford. Eye-rolling, annoying, hypnotic Robert Ford. The film’s supposed metaphor, the obsessive love of the cult of celebrity, is as much of everybody else as it is of him; and though the comparisons with limelight stalker-assassins may not be unfair, to judge him cowardly is to look only at where he stands when he kills. While others are afraid to show themselves openly Bob bares his heart, whatever he may think to the contrary – his love of Jesse is as hopelessly obvious as is his unguarded anger towards him when gradually provoked – no-one else but his brother Frank has the courage to issue Jesse a command, or even raise their voice to him; and, though Bob comes to fear the rabid beast’s bite as much as anyone, it is this which wins him the place close enough to strike down the idol, all but at the idol’s request.
This has been a little season of westerns and yet, with No Country… and There Will Be Blood being what they are, this almost seems to be the first of them. It is like spending the evening staring out over the plain, slowly edging towards its end, with time to think about the story, and to see that there is more going on than simply the assassination… by the coward…