Gutsy, intractable, restless, torn between a lust for crime and a responsibility to the wife and children he held paramount, Jesse saw both joy and tragedy on his way to becoming a legend. In Jesse’s autumnal years, his old gang was in prison or dead, his estranged brother Frank (Sam Shepard) had moved to Virginia, and his marriage to his cousin Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) was settling into a comfortable home life in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse went by the name Thomas Howard. But bored with retirement and itching for one last robbery, he recruited a new gang of gunmen, rustlers and safecrackers that included two brothers named Charley and Bob Ford (Sam Rockwell and Casey Affleck). It was the biggest mistake he ever made. Bob was an ambitious teenage loser with no skills or personality, mistakenly convinced he was destined for greatness by riding the coattails of the country’s most wanted desperado. A blushing fan in the days when outlaws were like today’s movie stars, he collected clippings and books about the James brothers in a box under his bed, but as the internecine jealousies, distrusts and conflicts among renegades intensified after the notches on their guns had faded, he started thinking of a way to turn in his idol for the reward money. So obsessed with his mentor that he would lie down on Jesse’s bed to smell his talcum powder, Bob was in love, but jealousy and greed took over. On April 3, 1882, he shot his hero in the back while he stood on a chair, peacefully and unarmed, dusting a picture frame on the wall. Jesse James was 34 years old.
The movie catalogs these events meticulously, but doesn’t stop there. Thousands made a pilgrimage to the cottage to view the corpse, laid out in ice on the dining room table. Fifty thousand dollars was offered by P. T. Barnum to tour the body as a circus attraction. The Fords were pardoned, and with the reward money they took their story to Broadway, where Bob gunned down Jesse James in cold blood all over again for more than 800 performances, sometimes leaping off the stage for fistfights with hostile audiences. Inevitably, their sorry lives ended in murder and suicide. It is impossible to overstate the museum quality of Roger Deakins’ haunting cinematography—rails carrying a train toward a James gang robbery, illumined in the darkness only by the light of a lantern, children playing outside a window framed by wallpaper stained with blood, the cruelly clenched jaw of a killer playing with a snake—or the intimacy of so many finely honed performances. Fast becoming one of our best screen actors, Mr. Pitt is an unforgettable Jesse James—funny, psychotic, sad, depressed, sick with lung disease and so cautious he can cock his own gun in his sleep if a floorboard creaks. The big surprise is Casey Affleck—cocky, crazy, naïve, his eyes at half–mast, always closer to his brain than his eyebrows. Together, they insightfully demonstrate how the potential of heroism is always more romantic than the reality. Writer-director Andrew Dominik eschews big action sequences for small moments of exquisite interplay and keeps us firmly planted in time and place. I don’t think I have ever seen a director present a more staunchly unromantic view of the Old West.
Despite the abundance of artistry in every frame, the film has divided audiences here; I agree with its detractors about only one thing: the length. Two hours and 40 minutes is just too long for any movie, and this one could be greatly improved by judicious editing. Still, to avoid it for fear of exhaustion is to miss out on one of the most majestic achievements about the transformation of an entire way of life in the changing West that has ever been captured in a motion picture.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a festival without a few outrageous oddballs and more than the usual allotment of blood, gore and soft-core porn, but a film from Argentina called XXY is, I believe, a factual case study of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite. It’s the grim story of Manitoba-born David Reimer, whose parents raised him as a girl after a botched circumcision severed his penis. Pressured to choose a gender, he chose both, finally falling in love with the son of a surgeon his parents invited home to remove what remained of his sex organs. But the long and painful years of surgery and psychotherapy took their toll, and he committed suicide at the age of 38. Not a happy story, and unlikely to play at your local mall, but gripping and very well made, XXY is still less shocking than a horror from Belgium called Ex Drummer, about a punk-rock band that makes Marilyn Manson look like Perry Como. The singer is a Nazi woman-hating skinhead rapist, the guitarist is a deaf junkie, and the bass player has a paralyzed arm due to a near-fatal accident during masturbation, with various boyfriends in attendance as groupies and a bald, 300-pound mother as the band’s road manager. All they need is a drummer. It’s not a comedy. The savagery and ear-splitting rock ’n’ roll noise spiral downward into chaotic, sexually explicit violence.
There’s so much more. Kenneth Branagh brought his wickedly entertaining remake of Anthony Shaffer’s nasty, sharp thriller Sleuth, about a vengeful old mystery writer who matches wits and murder plots in a remote country estate with an attractive younger man he suspects of stealing his wife, with Michael Caine in the role Laurence Olivier played in the wonderful 1972 version, and Jude Law in the “Get the Guest” role Mr. Caine originally played himself. Lethal games, cocktails, state-of-the-art weapons, and a devilish screenplay by Harold Pinter are perks in a shrewdly entertaining tour de force. And the talk of TIFF is David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, with lines two blocks long to see hunky Viggo Mortensen as a chauffeur for the Russian Mafia in London, punching it out in a steam bath stark naked with knives, razors and fists, and full-frontally baring it all for four whole minutes of unbearable violence that leaves nothing to the imagination. Call it Balls of Fury, in more ways than one.
Not exactly a dull first week in Toronto.