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

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Based on Ron Hansen's 1983 novel of the same name, director Andrew Dominik and his creative team made a lavish film chronicling the life of two men. These two men are Jesse James, known in some cases as the Dark Angel and the Robin Hood of the west, and Robert Ford, the mousy coward who killed him. This film chooses to examine these two men psychologically rather than re-tell the flamboyant tales originating from the dime novels of the 1870s and persisting to the present-day myths.

The film opens with the late night Blue Cut train robbery when the James Gang was in their outlaw prime. The real drama unfolds in the robbery's aftermath, when these gang members compete for Jesse's attention. Jesse's (Brad Pitt) personal demons, such as being somewhat schizophrenic and intensely paranoid, had the members of the gang on edge and anxious. Their attention was centered on him, causing the gang to struggle with themselves and cater to his desires. They do not connect with each other.

This examination of human behavior, ego, and resentment is the theme of this intriguing film. When Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) met Jesse and showed his admiration for him, Jesse welcomed it. The young, insecure Robert Ford collected and read the dime novels written about his hero (Jesse) and worshipped him. Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) had been a member of the gang, so Jesse decided to recruit young Robert. Between train and bank robberies Jesse, now known as Thomas Howard, kept Robert around as a houseguest if only to stroke his ego and run errands. All the time, Robert was gaining Jesse's confidence.

The film shows the life and death situations Jesse would put himself into as if he enjoyed it. This was his way of living on the edge, all the while having the other members of his gang feeling uneasy and questioning his reasoning. He threatened and killed members he felt would benefit from turning him in. Brad Pitt's performance in displaying the mood swings in his character was mesmerizing. It seemed that Jesse just wanted the sensational feeling of knowing that death was a possibility in the last years of his life. With Robert Ford sharing his home, he was setting himself up to be killed or captured.

While Brad Pitt is the lead in this long and winding tale, Casey Affleck is very impressive in his portrayal. I found myself concentrating more on Affleck's performance than Pitt's. Perhaps Robert Ford wanted a special connection with his idol or maybe he wanted to be Jesse James. As the story unfolded more emphasis was placed on the personality of Robert Ford and provided a good platform for the actors. The fine supporting cast consisted of Sam Shepard as Frank James, Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse's wife Zee, Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, Jeremy Renner, and Garret Dillahunt.

In the final analysis, I feel there were many factors contributing to Robert Ford's killing of Jesse James. It could have been explained as self-defense because he was in fear for his life, or the opportunity for the reward money; my thought on the assassination is that it provided the irresistable opportunity to be great. As for the film itself, it was quite lengthy, but that never bothered me. I felt good about the two hours and thirty minutes run time because many of the scenes of the western landscape were given long, wide shots accompanied by good dramatic dialogue. This flick proved to be a fascinating piece of  work.

Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Running time: 2 hours 32 mins.
Release date: September 21, 2007
Genre: Western
Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures
MPAA Rating: R

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About Gerald Wright

  • Alec

    Not. Interested. In. Psychology.

    The problems I had with this film brought back memories of arguments that I had with the professor of my “Psychoanalysis and Literature” class. Since we don’t actually have Jesse James around, any so-called psychological study is more about the minds of the director, producers and other than about Jesse James.

    And I don’t give a rat’s ass about the film’s director or producer.

    Also, these kinds of approaches might be interesting for about 10 minutes in an Abnormal Psychology class, but are neither creative nor sustaining.

    Give me a dime novel approach any day.

  • Galen Scott

    I was very sceptical about this movie, mainly because I don’t care for westerns at all. However, after watching the film, all I can say is “WOW”! I’ve never seen anything like this before! All of the acting performances were first rate, and both Casey Affleck and Brad pitt deserved Oscars for their realistic, gritty performances as Robert Ford and Jesse James. Also, the cinematography was out of this world, the sound track was hauntingly surrealistic, and the story itself was absolutley compelling! As I was drawn farther and farther into the film, I felt as if I myself had been transported back to the American midwest in 1881, and was watching the entire fascinating drama play out before my very eyes! Incredible!!!!!

  • Edward

    Alec is a fool! What a dilettanti! Why would a pesky student like him be having a debate with a professor? Absolute fiction!

    I enjoyed the film. I especially liked the gun fight at the Ford household. Showing the guns to have a bad accuracy in that day and age, well, I liked that very much. I’ve heard that shotguns were used far more often for accurate shooting and that small guns were more for last resort and close-quarter fighting.

    Sassy film!

    EC

    XXX