“The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

assassination of jesse james

(As a note all I knew about this film while walking into it was that it starred Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and was shot by the unapproachable DP Roger Deakins. If you wish to have that same surprise, then don’t read on. For those of you who do I won’t give away much, except that Jesse James is assassinated.)

I love long titles to movies but that didn’t stop my friend and I from joking while walking into the theatre about it. We could remember the first part The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward… and then we’d mumble into silence, truly a good laugh. After having seen this film I don’t think I’ll ever forget his name, …Rober Ford, though whether or not he was a coward should be left up to you.

There have been a lot of movies about men who do bad things. Many times these villains are portrayed as very human. Flawed but loving. Giving but murderous. Where a character is so charismatic and intelligent that it’s easy to overlook the worst part of them. You can’t help but feeling sympathy even though they hold very little for other people. The Assassination gives new breadth to this idea, instilling it not only in the audience but in the characters in the film that follow Jesse James around like servants, and also to the rest of the world who viewed Jesse James as a kind of Robin Hood like hero making him the first true celebrity of our country. Books were written about the James gang led by he and his brother, Frank James, that made them out to be the best kind of anti-heroes, thousands of people came to see his frozen body after he died and although he was a murderer and train robber with a sinister and frightening mean streak young men looked up to him. One of those young men, as portrayed by a youthful insecure Casey Affleck to extraordinary effect, was Robert Ford. He has such a crush on his childhood idol that the reverence in his eyes races past respect and beats creepy to the finish line. But luck shines on him as Jesse, played with a fiery, silent menace by Brad Pitt, and his brother Frank, portrayed by the always solid Sam Shephard, recruit some local town folk to assist in their final train heist. Bob happens to be one of them and he wants more than anything else to be their “side kick”. Though he can’t seem to get anyone to respect him, you’ll understand why within moments of his character’s introduction. Along with him is his older brother Charley Ford who’s played by the incredibly affable Sam Rockwell. Just listing all of the names, and there are more, I’m reminded by that not only are these truly incredible performances, but by how naturally these actors inhabit their skins, as if they could be no one else but the person on screen. Though they’re allowed to perform in a way you wouldn’t expect. I’ll come back to that.

The director of this piece of historical film making is Andrew Dominick. He also adapted the screenplay from the book. One of the many Producers is Ridley Scott, and you can feel his influence over this film like a rain cloud on a stormy day, which is a one of the biggest compliments I can give (I can draw many similarities between this and his sci-fi classic and one of my favorite films, “Bladerunner”).

The story is told, shot and edited as an extension of the characters psyches. These characters brood and take their time, mulling decisions over, sizing each other up, nervously waiting to speak. The camera too holds on its subjects for long lengths of time, waiting for a natural change in their demeanor. It doesn’t only show their performances it captures their essence. We can’t look away. We’re unsettled, made uncomfortable at times as an incredible psychological cat and mouse game plays out between Jesse and each of his compatriots. These long stretches of silence and unease and incredible dialogue are put to rest by sharp bursts of violence, and in a film as calculated as this, each bullet fired matters and has consequences. Any other director might have cut to the “important” reactions and could have been able to trim the film down closer to two hours, but I like it better this way. There’s a reality that slowly sets in that most movies wouldn’t know what to do with.

It helps that the photography is beautiful. Roger Deakins makes every other cinematographer this past year look lazy in comparison. When snow has swept the landscape you feel the cold emanating from the screen. James is made to look almost like a statue in the first few moments of the film. He’s a myth about to be opened up, made real as his growing distrust is eventually what tears him apart and turns his closest against him. Can a man be evil and want good at the same time? It’s an interesting question that seems to tear Jesse at the seams. On the other hand is it worth doing the right thing if it is for selfish reasons? That’s the question that plagues Robert Ford’s character.

It’s nice to walk into a movie theatre and to be genuinely surprised by what you see. The Assassination draws you in with it’s magnetic lull and holds you, allowing you to be affected by the violence and the characters with equal reverence, respect and disgust. Though this isn’t your typical Western. There are no shoot outs with ten people running around raucously down the center street of a dirt ridden town while people look through cracks in wooden buildings hoping a stray bullet doesn’t hit them. There are no horse chases through open expanses. This is about characters, people if you will, as close as film characters can become to people anyway.

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