Review: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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The cult of celebrity in an era that people thought was above such nonsense!

Screenplay By: Andrew Dominik
Directed By: Andrew Dominik

The design of the title should let you know right off the bat what you are in for with The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Jesse James is in large type, while Robert Ford is in small type and is prefaced by a bit of slander. From this early position one should be able to glean that the film will be about the myth of one and the defamation of the other. If history has taught us anything it is that Jesse James was a very famous person, it’s a misnomer to call him infamous because despite his dastardly deeds he was much beloved. History has also taught us nothing about Robert Ford, that his name has been lost to time and is only referenced in regards to the “cowardly fool” who assassinated Jesse James. This brings us back to the title, think of the word assassinate. Ford didn’t bring justice to a cold blooded killer, no, he assassinated a man of the people, a real celebrity.

Celebrity is the heart of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Dominik has crafted a film that bashes the world in the face with its love of celebrity. Jesse James was not a great man, he was a mythic figure and a good killer, but he was not a great man. Yet America, and the world, fell in love with Jesse James. They wrote of his exploits, they glorified his killing, they became enamored with a cold blooded killer. Enter Robert Ford, a man who loved Jesse James. He idolized him and wanted to be just like him. It is through his character that we see how dangerous the cult of celebrity can be and how wrong our image of the celebrity can be. For example, as much as James was not a great man, he was a family man and that is far from his gun slinging reputation. Robert Ford shows us what happens when your idol is within your grasp but becomes a deity you can’t connect with. Ford is spurned by James, that is why he decides to turn on him and it is the fact that he still loves James that causes his later regret. Cult of celebrity is dangerous, maybe even moreso today than in years gone by, just don’t tell your mom that when she’s watching E! News.

There is a very specific pace to The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and it isn’t for everyone. I had a hard time pegging it down as I was watching the film, but after I finished I realized that in a lot of ways it reminds me of the type of pacing that Terrence Malick likes to use in his films. Every scene lingers in your mind, taking a long time to unfold, this is a film that moves at its own languid, very leisurely pace. I didn’t have any problem with the pacing, I actually enjoyed it immensely, but for people who like their movies to hum along and get to the point this certainly won’t appeal.

It goes without saying that this film is beautiful, but that’s what you get from a Roger Deakins film. The opening Blue Cut train robbery is gorgeous, the darkness of night intermixing with the lights from the train revealing the gang in their hoods is a breathtaking sight. The sights don’t end there, throughout The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford scene after scene is lit beautifully, with shades of darkness everywhere. Beautiful vistas are on full display, the vast expanse of the old West has never looked bigger. Helping to set the tone for the film and to add to Deakins’ cinematography is the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I am a big fan of Cave, so perhaps I am biased, but the score of The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is haunting, creepy and mythic like its main character.

There has been some criticism levied towards The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford that it features characters without much depth. The lack of depth is true, but I don’t believe these characters needed much depth. Sometimes people are who they are and because of their circumstances they will not change or grow. Jesse is a man who steals money for a living, is paranoid and loves his family. Robert Ford is obsessed with his idol and will go to any lengths to matter as much as Jesse does. Charley Ford is slow and dim witted, with not so much as a deep thought within his head, till the very end at least. The performances that matter in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford are delivered with aplomb, Brad Pitt has never been remarkable to me in any way but I thought he was terrific as Jesse. Casey Affleck was entirely creepy and unsympathetic as Robert, just the way an assassin should be.

My only real complaints against The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford would be the moments that could have been cut due to not mattering to the story all that much, such as the trek of Wood Hite and Dick Liddil to see Papa Hite. I also think the film missed some chances to go interesting places with Zee James and Frank James. We know how outsiders and friends view Jesse, give us a glimpse at how his family sees him. But, for the most part The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford hits on all cylinders and is a thought provoking film that offers some interesting meditation on an equally interesting subject. It is far from your typical Western, and I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are not fans of slow moving films. The man, the myth, the legend and the man that time forgot, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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