We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
Few things have earned me more grief from readers than my recent suggestion that in the sport of sex, Capt. Renault of "Casablanca" plays for both teams. I think I will get less disagreement when I focus on the homosexual undertones of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Jesse (Brad Pitt) is certainly not gay, but the Coward (Casey Affleck) is so powerfully mesmerized by him that hero worship shades into lust. Since sex between them is out of the question, their relationship turns into a curiously erotic dance of death; it is clear to both of them (and to anyone reading the title) what must happen at the end, and they move together toward that event with almost trancelike inevitability.
The movie has the space and freedom of classic Western epics. Like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Days of Heaven," it was photographed in the wide open spaces of western Canada, where the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends. Jesse James is such a man, a ruthless killer and attentive father and husband, glorified in the dime novels that Robert Ford memorizes. If Ford is a coward, what does that make James, who led his efficient gang in stagecoach and bank robberies that involved the deaths of unarmed men and women? Yes, but he did it with style, you see, and Ford is only a callow squirt.
The story begins in 1881, after Jesse's legend is already part of the mythology and the James Gang has only one robbery left to go. The gang members are Jesse's older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), the Coward's older brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Jesse's cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and the outlaw Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Robert Ford, at 19, comes after them begging to be let in; his devotion is so intense that Jesse asks him at one point, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"
The Coward is like a starstruck stalker, something all the gang members recognize. Why does Jesse tolerate him? Is there a buried message that James, having become a founding member of America's celebrity royalty, realizes that Robert is the price he has to pay? After their last train job, Frank has had enough, and heads out. Jesse goes home to his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and children, and unaccountably invites Robert to visit them. There are the usual lyrical passages of Jesse playing with his kids and loving his wife, and yet all the time he and the Coward have something deadly going on between them. If Robert cannot be the lover of his hero, what would be more intimate than to kill him?