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


Photo by Warner Brothers Pictures

Brad Pitt stars as the deadly outlaw Jesse James in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” playing in theaters now.

There are times in our lives when we wish we could be something more than just ourselves — that if we had a hero we could be like, then people would take notice of us. As unrealistic of an idea this is, we as humans crave for it. Yet, when we find out who our heroes really are, we change our mind about the ones we idolized. This idea also carries over into the arts and media as well. This is the very essence of the new western film, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”

This film follows the young and idealistic Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as he desperately attempts to live out his dream to be an outlaw in the infamous James Gang. With his brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), already in the gang, Robert thinks it will be easy to become an outlaw. His goal is met with resistance from Jesse’s older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard). But Jesse overrules his brother and allows him in the gang. Ironically, after Robert’s first train robbery, he finds neither glory nor adventure, but only callous brutality, and the robbery is ultimately unsuccessful.

After the robbery, Frank and Jesse decide to stop holding up trains and part ways on bad terms when Frank realizes Jesse’s destructive ways will eventually catch up to him. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the James Gang also breaks up.

What follows is a slow, yet reflective look at obsession, paranoia, the loss of innocence and ultimately the death of the most famous outlaw in American history. Writer-director Andrew Dominik adapts the story from the acclaimed novel by Ron Hansen, and turns it into a somber and reflective film that echoes the masterpieces of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.”

While this film does not reach the high bar set by those films it is a stirring, dramatic tale that is worthy of praise. There are quite a few things that set this film apart as a quality production. The two performances by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck are lynchpins. While there is a solid supporting cast, the story is driven by these two. Brad Pitt is excellent as James, able to play him both as understated and collected, but mean and savage. Casey Affleck distances himself from the shadow of his older brother, Ben, playing at first an innocent teenager and afterward the hardened, resentful and somewhat remorseful man he becomes.

This film is technically brilliant, especially in cinematography and music. The accomplished director of photography, Roger Deakins, takes his visual eye and brings a whole new look to the film that deepens it even more. Not only does he capture the seasons of the West with skill, but also he repeatedly uses a shot with an unfocused lens that adds thematically to the narrative. The train robbery he photographs is a breathtaking a scene that could arguably be one of the greatest photographed scenes in a western.

The music is composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, also composers of another western, “The Proposition.” The mesmerizing and arresting score sets the mood for a foreboding tale.

This film will not be loved by all. With an approximate running time of two hours and forty minutes, some will not have the patience the film requires. It needed more editing, and the pacing needed to be quickened in places, but this is not too pervasive a problem. The film is more like a fine wine that gets better as it progresses. It is a cinematic symphony that keeps rising and falling until it crescendos to a resounding final act. If you are looking for the stereotypical grandiose gunfights and other western clichés, I suggest you go elsewhere.

However, those who can sit through a long, yet ultimately strong dramatic film will be grateful for the opportunity. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is Rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.

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