Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Genres: Action, Drama, Western
Running Time: 2 hrs, 40 minutes
Release Date: September 21st, 2007 (limited)
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution

Directed by: Andrew Dominik

My knowledge of Jesse James is no more than the average person. The mythology surrounding the great outlaw has shaped how we perceive the early days of America's frontier. Stories of daring train robberies and bank heists have turned Jesse into a hero for the lower class: A Robin Hood of the 19th century, fighting the system and doing things his way.

But the film, as its title implies, is not just about the Jesse James, but rather a deep character study into a lesser-known, but significant individual that is integral to the history of the outlaw that became such a folkloric legend.

This is a film that will probably not be very popular with the typical movie-watcher. There are no incredible special effects, no jaw-dropping CGI, no big explosions, no sex scenes and no car chases. Instead what you are left with is a film that stands on its own on the strength of the actors and a solid, compelling script that unapologetically tells its story at a pace that doesn't spare historical details.

We find Jesse in the twilight of his glory days of 30-something middle age. He and his older brother Frank, (played beautifully by Sam Shepard) are winding down their 14 year careers as legendary outlaws. All their former sidekicks are either dead or in Jail, so the James boys assemble a collection of dubious local thieves to help with one final train robbery. Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, the mousy little brother of henchman Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell). Robert has grown up idolizing the man, collecting dime stories and newspaper clippings since he was a kid. He begs his way into the gang and is soon standing side by side with the man he worships with a quiet passion.

By this point in his life, Jesse is well aware of his celebrity status and with growing paranoia and a finely honed, almost superhuman ability to detect trouble, takes steps to ensure that all loose ends are tied up. But he just can seem to let go of the Ford brothers, with Robert becoming somewhat of a pet to the gunslinger. But it's precisely this person that will eventually write his name into the history books. Albeit not quite the way he may have secretly wished.

Brad Pitt, who coincidentally grew up less than 200 miles from Jesse Jame's birthplace, won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his portrayal of the notorious outlaw and plays the part exceedingly well. Like the character he portrays, Pitt is precise and deliberate, calculated and measured - playing Jesse as both paranoid and sly, hiding the character's true feelings behind a veil of forced cordiality, while quietly scrutinizing every detail of the world around him.

And Casey Affleck - who always seems typecast as second-fiddle and slightly awkward sidekicks, manages to use this demeanor to his advantage, infusing Robert Ford with a deep rooted passion and quiet desperation. This is Affleck's break out role and he is truly a joy to watch.

Mary Louise Parker is also in this film and I have admired her acting before, but her part as James' wife is so insignificant, I doubt she was on the set for more than a day to shoot all of her scenes.

Relatively unknown New Zealand Director and co-writer Andrew Dominik shows an obsession for detail and historical accuracy comparable to the way James Cameron works. Dominik’s chronicling of the steps that lead up to, and the subsequent aftermath of Jesse James' death is engrossing.

Five-time Oscar nominee Cinematographer Roger Deakins says that this is one of the most atmospheric films he's ever worked on. "It’s based on a book of poetic lyricism with moments of deep melancholy, and we worked to bring this feeling to the movie." Deakins said. "It is visually different than the Westerns one is used to seeing. The country was changing during this period and we wanted to reflect that. " Using at times what look like antique camera lenses, Deakins uses a palate of thin, washed out colors to paint a pale picture of winter on the plains of Central America - which, ironically thanks to American greed and industrialization can only be shot in still relatively-untouched Canada.

A lot of scenes appear to take place either through or around windows - perhaps a metaphor for the way we perceive history. The rippled, imperfect glass of the era imparts a wavy, dreamlike quality to the story while also being historically accurate in every detail.

The visuals and acting mesh perfectly with the haunting music by Nick Cave (of Bad Seeds fame) and Warren Ellis, which work to color the film with a feeling of distant melancholy for a by-gone time.

Overall the film is a departure from modern cinema. It plays out more like a book and less like a movie. Its leisurely pace and careful re-telling of the story of Jesse James avoids typical stereotypes and helps to infuse new life into the Western genre. Masterfully shot, directed and acted, this is a film that will be on a lot of people's watch lists as Oscar time rolls closer.

Jesse's epitaph on his tombstone:
In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here

[Left: part of the original newspaper headline offering the reward for the James brothers]


Vipin said...
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Anonymous said...

The family of Jesse James has posted its own review of the movie on their family web site, Stray Leaves.

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