Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Nate Hood's Quarantine Qapsule #51 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid  ★★★
But Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid fits into neither of these categories, choosing instead to focus on one specific incident in Jesse James’ life: the James-Younger Gang’s disastrous attempted robbery of the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota in 1876. This marked the end of James’ gang with only himself and his brother Frank escaping while the rest of their posse were killed or arrested. Kaufman treats the event as the end of the Old West era, a watershed moment where the age of cowboys and Indians gave way to civilization. Kaufman personifies these twin historical trends with his competing leads, the first being Jesse (Robert Duvall) and Frank (John Pearce), depicted as cutthroats tied to old ways and manners, eager to feed their legend as magnanimous thieves so long as it provides them with safe houses among impoverished settlers and homesteaders. On the other side is Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), no less astute a criminal than Jesse but more attuned to the changing trends of progress around him, taking the time to scout out Northfield and marvel at its new technology like steam engines.
But the film is far from elegiac. In fact, Kaufman presents his material with a comedic breeziness at considerable odds with its grim, grimy visual aesthetic. At times it feels like Kaufman is trying to channel George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)—indeed, an extended slapstick sequence at a baseball game feels like a direct response to that film’s scene where Paul Newman does bicycle tricks to the sound of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” But Kaufman never manages to fully reconcile the comedy with the seriousness of the historical material.