Among critics, and among American critics in particular, the traditional attitude toward any film’s reputation is skepticism. We eye received wisdom of any kind warily. We regard consensus, or in any case simply the illusion of consensus, as inherently dubious. Inclined, perhaps, to follow our territorial impulse, we reject the dustiest exponents of the canon with a vitriol commensurate with their esteem, chucking out old favorites to clear some room for the newly reclaimed and restored. They got it wrong. But we’ll get it right: we’ll correct the historical record and give the long-maligned their due. Such adjustments, of course, are not strictly in thrall to the mercurial whims of critics eager to shake up the canonical roster — time itself, the ultimate equalizer, tends to distinguish the excellent from the merely entertaining all on its own. The neglected greatness of, say, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” needn’t be argued so much as chronicled: thirty years of gradual resuscitation made a strong enough case. After a few decades a flop can learn to stand up for itself. All a critic can do is facilitate the crutches.
But that process takes an awful lot of time, and sometimes we don’t have the patience to wait for history to corroborate. Sometimes those mercurial whims win out. This seems to the case with “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. Andrew Dominik’s mournful neo-Western was released just six years ago to date, in the fall of 2007, but a campaign has since been mounted to bring it the glory and acclaim it failed to muster then. Warner Brothers, not exactly sure of how to market a languorous 160-minute film about the plaintive history of a Western legend’s demise, dumped it into theaters and hoped that Brad Pitt would draw a crowd. Alas, he did not. Though it was quite warmly received by critics, the film failed spectacularly at the box office, earning back a little over half of its $30 million budget, and perhaps as a consequence “Jesse James” quickly tumbled into historical oblivion, most of its admirers shrugging off the loss and moving on. But its most fervent admirers have other plans.
Jamieson McGonigle, a 29-year-old film editor based in New York, has begun an endeavor to return “The Assassination of Jesse James” to the spotlight anew. To that end he has organized a special screening of the film at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image on the evening of December 7th, to which he has invited Dominik to speak about the film and which has, rather surprisingly, been sold out for weeks. The response, suffice it to say, has been encouraging: it seems critics and audiences alike have spent the last six years nursing their quiet affection for Dominik and “Jesse James”, and this event has proven occasion enough to finally celebrate their legacy out in the open. McGonigle describes his efforts as intending to establish the film as a “classic and a staple of repertory cinema”, and he has expressed his hope that the attention entrained by this event will help transform the revival into a full-blown world tour. And Dominik, quite understandably, has been pleased to accommodate this new influx of attention, doubtless glad to find that his failure has been reconfigured as a cult success.
And so the question becomes how, then, does the film stand up? To look at it now, divorced from its reputation as a failure, “Jesse James” seems like something of an aberration: more “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” than “Unforgiven”, Dominik’s film seems quaintly melancholic, an old-fashioned lamentation for the iconography of the west, a study of a historical moment’s recording which aspires, perhaps too loftily, to follow in the footsteps of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. That the film failed to find a sizable audience, and that Warners failed to market it properly, hardly seems surprising — in fact what remains more surprising is that Warners agreed to release the film in this state at all. It seems apparent in every frame that Dominik had the utmost conviction in both this material and his approach to its direction, and part of the appeal of the film is its singular sensibility — in other words it very much feels like the product of an artist working in his own way toward something he genuinely believes in.
The film certainly remains intriguing, and I imagine it plays well on the big screen and among a receptive crowd. But is it a “classic”? Perhaps thirty more years will clarify the answer. But this weekend’s Revival is an ideal opportunity to begin asking the question.
The "Jesse James" Revival begins on Saturday, Dec. 7.