The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Thursday, March 1st at 92YTribeca
Writer-director Philip Kaufman's fetid western The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid accelerates on the strength of Robert Duvall's lysergic performance as Jesse James. Though Cliff Robertson, as a shrewder and more methodical Cole Younger, wins more screen time via necessities of plot, Duvall's cockney-like accent and idiosyncratic confidence (much like the aggressive actorliness of his role in the underrated The Apostle) haunt the storytelling machinations for which he's absent. Cole and his brothers are constantly mulling over how the famous outlaw will react and how his irascibility might be bottled; it makes the film's arc entertainingly unpredictable.
The plot, weirdly like Fritz Lang's M, observes how institutions become castrated (and then redeemed) by power struggles. We learn from Paul Frees's Disneyland-like narration that the James-Younger gang has for a change been robbed itself, of a plebiscite-ordered pardon in Minnesota, by corrupt politicians. They arrive at one of the state's small towns, hoping to stage a revenging hold up, but discover that none of its citizens trust the bank. And so the impregnating scheme begins, whereby Jesse and Cole intend first to weasel Northfield out of its confidence and then to exchange its riches for lead.
The film's aesthetic sits uneasily between the traditional hyper-violence of The Wild Bunch and the ugly naturalism of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (released the previous year). Kaufman dials back on Altman's savagery to fashion a poetic realism that boils down the western genre to clichés to be repeated frenzily, and often without context —perfidious prostitutes, shrill wives, hackneyed dialogue ("It's almost like old times!") and crazily kinetic POV shots that inhabit the locus of action. It's the filthy, humble world as Jesse James' victims see it, perhaps, in that split-second of panicked recognition before the bullets hit their heart, as they realize all too late whom they've underestimated.