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

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), directed by Andrew Dominik, stars Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Brooklynn Proulx (Mary James), and there's even Nick Cave with a guitar performing in a bar. Cave wrote the soundtrack too, which I willingly confess makes me all kinds of happy. The movie is based on the novel of the same name written by Ron Hansen.

The story is a known one. While dusting of a picture, Jesse James gets shot in the back by Robert Ford, hence the epithet of coward — you shouldn't shot people in the back. It's just bad manners.

"Can't figure it out — do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?" says Jesse James to Robert Ford — and that's kind of the rub right there.

I have to say I didn't expect something quite this big and stunning at the outset, but there's a reminiscence here of the way the landscape always plays into the really good western movies, like it was a character itself. There are wheat fields and forests and farms and the stark and stunning visuals come across almost like the faded sepia prints of the turn of the century photographs that can make even the most drab face seem interesting. None of the faces here are even remotely drab.

I can't help thinking of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), but I think that's mostly because of Sam Shepard and because I had that same straying thought there about photography and how stylish something as simple as a white shirt and black vest can seem when set starkly against a backdrop of fields and the strange desolation of pre-modern times.

During the period depicted here burgeoning media coverage is creating strange celebrities like the outlaw Jesse James, and Pitt seems like the perfect choice for a part that deals with that, considering his own public persona.

I'm kind of a sucker for the visual, and this movie delivers. There's also a lot more to the performances here than you might expect. I seem to recall that there was some speculation as to whether or not Pitt could carry a leading role the way this demands, having been stuck with his pretty boy reputation for a long while. He can and he does. Casey Affleck also gives a great performance as the sycophantic wanna-be sidekick whose treacherous affection turns sour the minute reality clashes with his ideas as to what the relationship between himself and Jesse James should be.

Jesse James is unpredictable in the most interesting way possible. He is paranoid and callous, but he is also a loving family man and a devoted husband. The relationship between Jesse and his older brother Frank is strained to say the least. Frank seems to think there’s something strange about his younger brother. There is less than no dialogue between the two, but you feel it nonetheless.

Sam Rockwell manages to completely steal the scene in which his character Charley Ford performs the character of Jesse James on stage; there's a visceral change in him, the way he walks, the way he holds himself, that actually does give you the distinct impression that Charley is suddenly possessed by the Jesse James we have seen throughout the movie.

This movie is long and it takes its time, setting a slower pace than most westerns and sidling towards the art house meditation, again something that I think audiences might take issue with. It torques the tension between the characters by giving the uncomfortable silences time to grow. That’s not to say there isn’t action, there is, train robberies and gunfights and what-not.

This movie has a lot to recommend it, not least the actors’ performances. It takes a lot to have neither of the two lead characters be the least bit likable. They are both fascinating to watch, though, Jesse James in all his cruel and bullying harshness and Bob Ford who is fawning and visibly untrustworthy and to top it off speaks in a way that grates on your nerves.

You have to come prepared for the pacing, though. This is a long story and it takes time telling.

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  • Ted

    Oh man, Ioved this movie, so meloncholy, such atmosphere! Too bad it flew under the radar. Perhaps it will have its day when someone publishes a list of underrated movies from the 00’s. Nice review.

  • Mule

    It did fly under the radar, didn’t it? But then again anything not easily swallowed tends to do that, no matter how palatable it is. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.