Two different eras of Hollywood filmmaking clash uncomfortably in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, a sloppy but interesting-ish look at one of the Wild West’s most notorious criminal outfits, the James-Younger gang. The picture gets studio-era romanticism from producer-star Cliff Robertson, who plays Cole Younger as a wide-eyed dreamer more reliant on guile than gunplay. Offering a bracing counterpoint of New Hollywood realism is Robert Duvall, who plays Jesse James as a crude sociopath prone to outbursts of messianic frenzy. Unsuccessfully attempting to blend these tonalities is writer-director Philip Kaufman, helming his first big-budget picture.
Even with veteran action cinematographer Bruce Surtees on his team, Kaufman seems unsure how to orchestrate complex scenes; the camera is often focused behind or to the side of the main action, which is incredibly distracting. Even simple dialogue scenes suffer from clumsy execution, because Kaufman can’t seem to decide whether he wants glossy artificiality or hard-hitting authenticity. Kaufman’s screenplay is as jumbled as his direction, although to be fair, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid feels as if it might have been significantly reconfigured during editing; the film’s choppy montage sequences and clunky narration seem like they were added to clarify story points that were muddy in the original footage.
Still, the underlying historical facts are compelling, and Kaufman’s method for contrasting James and Younger works. In parallel storylines, the two factions of the James-Younger gang converge on the town of Northfield, Minnesota, giving viewers distinct perspectives on the character of each faction. With an eye on robbing Northfield’s bank, Younger insinuates himself into the local populace, persuading townies to fatten the bank’s value with new deposits. Meanwhile, James suffers delusions of grandeur even though he lacks Younger’s intellectual discipline and strategic acumen. When the factions merge, disharmony between James’ savagery and Younger’s slyness leads to disaster. And while the climactic scene of the Northfield robbery is exciting and imaginative, everything that happens before and after the big scene is haphazard.
Duvall’s scenes are stronger because his characterization is more believable, a small man drunk on his own fame. Robertson’s scenes are elaborate, though overly reliant on gimmicks like his repeated line, “Ain’t that a wonderment?” Matters are not helped by the preponderance of overly familiar character actors, including R.G. Armstrong, Luke Askew, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr., Royal Dano, and Dana Elcar, which lends the picture the generic feel of episodic television. (The less said about Dave Grusin’s weird musical score, which features everything from bouncy calliope music to acid-rock guitars, the better.) The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid can’t be dismissed because it’s filled with interesting ideas, but it can’t be praised very highly because only a few of those ideas are brought to fruition.
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid: FUNKY