The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Film Review

Brad Pitt as Jesse James
Brad Pitt as Jesse James

I’m a little late on this one, having missed it in the theater. I selected it on this very rainy day primarily on the Academy Award nominations of Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor and Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography. Neither won, but both efforts have been critically acclaimed.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not a western. From the opening dialog and brooding score by Nick Cave, to the dark, almost claustrophobic camera choices made by Roger Deakins, we immediately see this film stradles several genres. Mr, Cave and Mr. Deakins as much as anyone connected with the picture set the mood for this ambitious, but overlong film.

Mr. Affleck plays Robert Ford, who for his entire life (he’s only 19) has been obsessed with Jesse James. Mr. Affleck uses his baby face and boyish voice to great effect. His performance is true throughout the wide expanse of mental states his character experiences. Ford keeps a small archive of materials in a cardboard box under his bed that he revisits from time to time. He manages to find James and entangles himself in the James Gang web of robbery and murder. The film brings in a lot of characters and does a good job at fleshing out each one, but I had a difficult time keeping track of them.

Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, is painted as bigger than life as a very popular outlaw who borders on folk hero. There are powers attributed to him in the film. “When he comes into a room it gets hotter.” He always seems to know what’s going on before anyone else. Mr. Pitt brings a strong gait, his classic pose and voice to James that is effective, and keeps us off balance.

Casey Affleck as Robert Ford
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford

Ford shoots one of James’ relatives during a fight and is afraid that James will find out and seek revenge. James keeps Ford close from that point on and a very suspenseful cat and mouse game ensues. Over time James’ health, both physical and mental, begins to slip and he and his brother Frank give up their outlaw escapades. But James plans one more bank job and wants Ford to go in with him. We know from the title that James will be killed, and I’m disappointed to report that the assassin is obvious not fifteen minutes into the film. If you’ve read the book by Ron Hansen ahead of time of course you know it all.

Director Andrew Dominik sends us on a serpentine path through the story to arrive at the final scene. Or so we think it’s the final scene. But then he continues to tell the story of Ford, and with it James himself, as the assassination is played out on stage. It’s the 1800’s version of a You Tube clip. Here is where the film really bogs down and you just wish it would end. Ford discovers he misses James and becomes tormented with his own life and how he handled his time with him.

Beautiful scenery, an interesting score and good performances overall, but it’s difficult to work up empathy for anyone in the film. I was left giving the film’s premise some serious thought, however I found myself wondering more about what life would have been like during that time. Not recommended.

This film was reviewed as a DVD widescreen format on a Sony WEGA plasma TV. Sound amplified on a Denon audio/video receiver set ti 5.1 surround mode through Monitor Audio speakers.

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

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