December 8, 2007 -- “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a sprawling, melancholy epic about a legendary outlaw and the man who killed him. Unlike most films about Jesse James, this one does not romanticize him or portray him as heroic and Robert Ford is not portrayed as a coward, either. Their story is complicated and this movie takes the time (two hours and 40 minutes) to delve into it in some depth.
Brad Pitt (“Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) stars as Jesse James, a paranoid outlaw who likes to play mind games with people. He can be charming, but if he senses any danger, he can turn deadly in a hurry. As one lawman advises a potential victim, “Don't let him get behind you,” because he likes to shoot people in the back. We see Jesse's murderous streak early as he is poised to murder a defiant baggage clerk during a train robbery as he lays unconscious on the floor. He is stopped by another outlaw. Jesse tells him, “Don't tell me what I can or can't do.” Jesse exudes and aura of danger. Every scene he is in is filled with tension because violence can erupt at any second.
Robert Ford (played by Casey Affleck of “Gone Baby Gone”) is a 19-year-old youngster who idolizes the James brothers. He is in on the train robbery with them early in the film. He tries to insinuate himself into the company of Jesse's brother Frank, (Sam Shepard of “The Return”), who rejects him. Jesse, on the other hand, allows him to ride along during the robbery. Later, Jesse invites Robert to hang out with him a while, stirring jealousy among the other outlaws because of his favored status. When Robert's friend, Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider of “The Family Stone”) is about to be executed by Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner of “28 Days Later”) a cousin of Jesse James, Robert shoots and kills him. That puts him, Liddel and Robert's brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell of “The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”) on Jesse's enemies list, if Jesse ever finds out they had anything to do with Wood Hite's death.
Hoping to save themselves, Robert and Dick Liddel turn themselves in to authorities and agree to help bring Jesse James to justice. Robert and Charley Ford agree to tag along with Jesse James and turn him in when the opportunity presents itself. When a newspaper leaks details of the secret deal with Liddel and Robert sees Jesse reading the article. He figures his time is up and Jesse plans to kill the Ford brothers very soon. Jesse's preferred method is to take his victim for a ride, get behind the man and shoot him in the back. Robert strikes first, before Jesse gets the chance.
The story is slow-paced but engaging because of the high level of suspense generated by Jesse's erratic, murderous behavior. Pitt is amazing as the mercurial Jesse in a performance reminiscent of his crazed turn in “12 Monkeys.” Affleck plays Ford in a relatively flat performance with few variations in facial expression, much like Gael García Bernal's performance in “The King.” The more interesting character is Charley Ford. At first, he seems like a simpleton, but it turns out he is nearly as skilled as Jesse James in hiding his emotions and manipulating the truth. He goes through a lot of changes in the movie. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins uses a lot of interesting techniques in the film, shooting through wavy glass and deliberately distorting parts of the picture numerous times. Deakins does not shoot this like an ordinary western. It lacks the scale and grandeur of a John Ford western, opting instead for a more modern murkiness. We don't see the clarity of myth. Instead, we see a visual representation of truths hidden and moral ambiguity.
The characters in this film don't wear cowboy hats in this film. They wear attire that looks more authentic for the part of the country and the times they lived in. They wear suits and hats of the period. This film doesn't end with the death of Jesse James. It follows the odd, checkered careers of Robert and Charley Ford for a time. It also illustrates the odd fascination the public had with Jesse James and his body (displayed on ice after he died). It examines the growth of the legend of Jesse as a sort of Robin Hood, and the vilification of Robert Ford. It shows how the Ford brothers were haunted by the legend of Jesse James for years after James' death. In fact, we are still haunted by that legend. This film rates a B.
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