REVIEW: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [2007]

“Recapitulating the act of betrayal”

The man, the myth, the legend, and the movie title. In what could be my favorite film name of all-time, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is much more than its superfluous moniker. From its bloated runtime to its slow, methodical pace, Andrew Dominik’s epic tale contains an inner beauty that allows for all the pretensions one seems to associate with it. Dominik is unrelenting on his quest to tell the story the way he wants it told, never compromising by cutting scenes or shortening the name so it will fit on theatre marquees. The film even seems to have been languishing in the doldrums for over a year before finally seeing the light of day. Maybe the time was spent because no one would distribute it without changes, and if that is so, I’m glad to have waited for its introduction. Had anything been compromised, I don’t think I would have enjoyed my time nearly as much. Do not expect the wild west or gun fights at every corner. This is not a tale of excess or young guns, but instead one of paranoia, suspicion, friendship, and betrayal from all sides.

I knew little about who Jesse James was before viewing the film. Coming in, I thought I would be seeing him during his heydays of robbery and murder, eventually meeting his demise at the hands of one of his crew. Instead, we are introduced to the legend just before his final night ride with brother Frank. It is the last train robbery he undertook, before attempting to retire home with his wife and kids, that he meets the Ford brothers and their ragtag degenerate friends. James is no longer as God-like as he might once have been. A shell of his former self, he is constantly uprooting his family, children who don’t even know his real name, in fear of capture by the Pinkertons. Always paranoid and untrusting of those around him, after all his brother has retired and his normal crew all gone, jailed, or dead, James begins to fear for his safety. By riding to cleanse himself of those that may be conspiring against him, he begins a journey that will take him back into the friendship of Robert and Charlie Ford. Whether from depression caused by the memories of all he has done or an escalation of the malice and crazed disposition that allowed him to do it, this reunion for a series of planned bank robberies finally leads to his end.

Dominik’s film is filled to the brim with nuance and subtlety. At every turn we are even quiet moments of the landscape and metered prose of speech, slowly contemplated and released into conversation. Everything is orchestrated with great care and each frame a thing of beauty. The film must have been storyboarded like crazy because the compositions of each scene is balanced and gorgeous to behold. From the extreme close-ups, the smoke-laden atmosphere, and the visions from behind period-aged impure glass, Dominik has taken painstaking care in making sure each second is perfect. Even the narrated moments telling of James’ past are vignetted and blurred to give a sense of age and dream-state. The time on display was one of little technology and a lack of quick paced elements. A gunshot to the head still leaves a man breathing while the bullet lodges itself, a gunfight at close range takes ten shots before a direct hit occurs, and one can see the approach of both friend and foe from a large distance away while they ride up on horseback. Everything is deliberately timed, both enhancing the period being portrayed and adding to the mood and almost nonexistent changes in mental disposition as the wheels turn inside each character’s head.

All the acting onscreen is top-notch. Brad Pitt really shows how good he is as the man behind the stories. This is a time of instability for him as his state of mind causes uncontrollable outbursts of violence followed by fits of laughter at the lapse in control. He realizes that he is not himself anymore and it is this knowledge of his own fallibility that makes him even more cautious of what is happening all around him. Did he deserve the best actor award at Venice this year? I don’t know. He is very good, possibly close to his best, however, he was overshadowed, to me, by costar Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford. Sure the supporting roles were all fantastic, Sam Rockwell was his usual self, although at times very subtle in the machinations going on behind his infectious smile, Garret Dillahunt was great finally getting a role other than a David Milch production, and Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider both portray members of the dysfunctional group. Affleck, though, truly shines as the young kid able to ride alongside his idol only to be shot down as strange and queer. His joy, expressed very openly to his hero, comes at a very bad time. Just as James starts to look at everyone more carefully, in comes this kid with a dangerous obsession. As Pitt says before sending Ford away, “I can’t tell if you want to be like me, or be me.”

Affleck’s performance is one of the years best. The times when he must try and hide the rage bottled up inside while his dreams of being the James Brother’s sidekick shatter are tough to watch. From this showing, Ford was no coward, but a man tired of being kicked while he was down. Perhaps the act of murder itself was cowardly, but only because of the circumstances surrounding it. Ford was working for the sheriff in order to capture the criminal, but when the opportunity presented itself, when James finally realized what was to happen, you can’t help feel sorry for the 20-year old has he wrestles with what is about to transpire.

I applaud Dominik for having the courage to create something that is by no means a bankable commodity. For every person that goes to see Brad Pitt’s new movie, there will be at least three that scoff at the almost three-hour duration and slow unfolding of plot. Either way, this film is a masterpiece to behold, a work of art encapsulating a moment of history. Even the epilogue, of what happens to Ford after the assassination, helps shape the motivations for all that transpired during the course of the film. It never feels boring and it never shies from the weight it carries on its shoulders. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is simply something that needs to be seen to understand the effect it has, and that experience should be at the theatre so its composition and visual splendor can be viewed in all its glory.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

And for all you Zooey Deschanel fans that want to see the film because her name is on every internet site as being in it, don’t. She is in the movie less than Nick Cave, and far less necessary. I still love how some people can be billed to sell a film when they have absolutely no bearing on it. No disrespect to her, I am a big fan.

photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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  1. [...] at this moment it is as follows: 10. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, review: Visually stunning, sweepingly epic, and enthralling throughout despite its overlong [...]



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