Review: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
Director: Andrew Dominick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary Louise-Parker, Jeremy Renner
Length: 160 min.
I can’t believe this movie has been off my radar for so long. For a while there, it was just that Western with an almost comically long title that everyone had been talking about, but that I never really paid much attention to. How wrong I was to do that, though. Along with the remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James has actually managed to lure me into the genre that I had never much paid much attention to. (Spoilers follow.)
Unlike those two films, however, Jesse James (Let’s keep shortening that title for the sake of my sanity, shall we?) abandons the gunslinging and high noon tropes that the genre is known for and presents itself as more of a true-life tall tale, something that the disembodied narrator of the story emphasizes when his voice pops in throughout the 2 hour and 40 minute film. Despite the film’s considerable length, it never feels as though it drags, with every pause and every moment of silence serving to let viewers watch as these actors put on some fine performances.
Brad Pitt plays the fabled outlaw as a man who has been caught up in his own notoriety and celebrity to the point of paranoia. Even in his own lifetime, he became a living legend, seen a sort of ambiguous superhero to impressionable young people, such as his future killer, Robert Ford, who read exaggerated tales about the adventures James and his men embarked on. Casey Affleck, in an Oscar-nominated role, plays the 20-year-old Ford as a nervous but eager kid, muttering his lines at times and grinning inappropriately as if he were trying to hide the fact that he doesn’t really know what the appropriate reaction would be. When he meets James, he’s starstruck and enamored with the fact that his distant hero is now taking an interest in his own life.
But once the two men begin collaborating with each other, the stars fall from Ford’s eyes as James’ increasingly unstable personality unsettles Ford and eventually turns him on the gangster he once idolized. The scene at the dinner table as James’ men begin to affirm his paranoia and Ford begins to turn on his hero is one of the best scenes in the film and is evidence as to why Affleck deserved his nomination.
To say that their relationship doesn’t exactly end well wouldn’t be giving anything away — even if you’re not familiar with the historical events this film (and the originating Ron Hansen book of the same name) is based on, it’s right there in the title, and the uncomfortable climax has become iconic and begat the brilliant parody featuring Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo. Once the inevitable happens, the film doesn’t end, and instead goes on to tell the story of how James became a sort of martyr for those who romanticized the outlaw lifestyle while Ford began to descend into his own infamy as a sad, pitiful man who shot a legend in the back for the money and fame he thought the assassination would bring him.
Even if you know the true historical tale behind the film (and I certainly didn’t know all of it before), the film is steady in its pacing and yet still graceful in easing up the tension. You will get a few brief gunfights, but, as I said, this was never meant to be the showdown-filled film that the studio wanted director Andrew Dominik and his editors to make. Indeed, the film was intended for a 2006 release, but disputes between the director and executives at the studio delayed the film to February 2007 before being finally released later in September of that year. At one point, the film was apparently four hours long.
Undoubtedly there will be a director’s cut somewhere down the line that will restore the extra hour and a half, but, as is, the current version is perfectly adequate enough. As stated before, Dominik employs an active narration throughout the film, often providing exposition as the scenes unfold in front of us. Aside from emphasizing the legend aspect of the story, the narration moves viewers along with the story, condensing time into moments and allowing us to focus on the emotion and know all the important details of what is going on in the minds of these people. And even though scenes focusing more on the activities of the men in James’ gang may seem somewhat extraneous in light of the well executed (ha!) character drama between James and Ford, they do help us as the audience realize that James stands out from the rest and unsettles even these hardened men, while also affirming Ford’s own paranoia about James’ intentions towards him and his brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell).
The film is also beautiful to look at, with much of the staging being worthy of a frame and a place on the wall, from characters brooding in the fields of tall grass to the gorgeously lit train robbery at night scene. Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins, as far as I can tell, really tend to favor shots of characters in large expanses. The scenes leading up to the assassination, though set within a populated area, don’t ever feel as though they take place within a developing town. These guys are alone in their own world, and there’s nobody they can turn to but each other, and even then there’s little to no trust among friends like these.
I highly recommend The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It’s a great character drama, wonderful to look at, competently acted, and briskly paced. I can honestly say that my stance on Westerns as a genre being uninteresting is beginning to erode due to films like this one.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5