The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


Brad Pitt as Jesse James
Casey Affleck as Robert Ford
Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford
Sam Shepard as Frank James
Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite
Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil
Mary-Louise Parker as Zeralda James
Zooey Deschanel as Dorothy Evans
Jesse Frechette as Albert Ford
Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller
Anthony Harrison as Marshal Craig
Ted Levine as Sheriff James Timberlake
Dustin Bollinger as Tim James
Pat Healy as Wilbur Ford
Meredith Henderson as Nellie Russell
Michael Parks as Henry Craig
Brooklynn Proulx as Mary Jamses
Kailin See as Sarah Hite
Hugh Ross as Narrator (voice)

Directed by Andrew Dominik

The slow pace and the fact that the title gives away the entire plot should only be a minor annoyance to those who love strong writing, powerful acting and great filmmaking.

The last days of the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is seen through his last big train robbery and the men involved, including Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young wannabe who idolizes James.

The second movie by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik, whose indie “Chopper” brought Eric Bana to attention, can never be accused of false advertising. It’s exactly what it says it’s about: “the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford” and much of the fun comes from wondering exactly when this preordained event will occur. Certainly, there are a lot of opportunities for Ford, played by Casey Affleck, to get the better of Brad Pitt’s notorious outlaw, but you’ll have to wait over two hours from the first time they meet, as Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard, impeccably cast) recruit a group of men to help them in an elaborate train robbery. If not for the title, we probably wouldn’t presume much from Robert Ford, the youngest of his family who’s used to being picked on and bullies by his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) and his friends, but he’s also headstrong about being exactly like his idol Jesse James one day.

Most of the film is little more than a prologue to set-up the confrontation between the two men, and it’s a fairly lengthy one at that, as it moves away from Jesse after the train robbery and starts focusing on the relationship between the other men involved. Jesse’s presence is always felt though, as he keeps showing up unannounced “just to stop by”, which usually means trouble or death for whomever he’s visiting. We see this happen a few times, which makes it clear why everyone is so nervous around him. Meanwhile, the relationship between the other men has soured and a conflict between two of them leads to a gunfight in which Jesse James’ cousin is killed. Due to their involvement, Rob and Charley Ford are worried that Jesse will be paying them a visit next, and sure enough, Jesse returns to plan their next job, with the Ford Brothers on edge wondering when Jesse will find about their part in his cousin’s death. Earlier, Robert is told by Frank not to ever be alone or turn his back on Jesse, and sure enough, it’s exactly what keeps happening, adding even more tension to a situation that builds over the next half hour as we wait for the fateful confrontation.

If you hadn’t figured it out, Dominik’s second film is a deliberately slow-paced character piece dealing with a specific event in a highly detailed way, presumably extrapolating and fictionalizing when necessary. Because of this, one’s interest in the times and the legend of Jesse James might have some effect on whether they’re able to withstand such a languid pace. This is clearly not Sergio Leone and anyone looking for a movie full of gun battles might be better suited for James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma” but regardless, the entire film looks absolutely stunning, every frame and scene meticulously lit and shot, especially the way that Dominik captures the stark wilderness.

The casting of Brad Pitt as Jesse James couldn’t be more perfect as the actor should be able to understand the perks and price of global fame and the necessary paranoia that comes along with it. He’s equally strong at playing James at his most gregarious, when telling a wild anecdote from his adventures or playing with his kids, but he’s even more effective as the serious, brooding killer whose unpredictable behavior makes everyone around him sweat. After Pitt disappears for an extended period of time, the movie becomes just as much about Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford, and the young actor does a great job showing the different sides of this complex character, including the slow burn most have seen or felt as all of the light-hearted ribbing from his brother and Jesse starts to get to him.

Like far too many Westerns, the women are little more than an after-thought, clearly the case with Zooey Deschanel who shows up towards the end as Robert Ford’s wife. It’s also disappointing how Sam Shepard’s Frank James disappears from the film almost completely after a great scene where he gives the young Ford a complete dressing-down.

Hugh Ross’ voice-over sometimes acts like tryptophan lulling the viewer into a bit of daze, much like the narration in P. Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia,” but fans of the Aussie Western “The Proposition” should appreciate what the ambient score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis brings to the film. An appearance late in the film by Cave as a troubadour singing about Jesse James’ shooting doesn’t work as well.

Surprisingly, the actual shooting is almost an anti-climax compared to all of the build-up, but the narrator continues to relay the story, as the story continues to follow Robert and Charley, showing how their lives have changed by being the men responsible for Jesse James’ death. Ultimately, it leads to a backlash from those that revered the outlaws’ exploits, and the negative effects of fame on Robert and his brother are far more cruel than James’ fate. It’s probably not too coincidental how many metaphors that can be drawn from this fable, especially by film critics and tabloid journalists, but considering the lack of humor among both groups, one can presume that opinions will be divided whether Dominik’s atmospheric Western is genius filmmaking or the height of pretentious cinematic wanking. Unlike the work of some of Dominik’s precursors–Terrence Malick is the most obvious comparison–this is a movie that grows on you as the characters are developed and the tension builds to its inevitable climax and an unforgettable epilogue.