Friday, 1 July 2022

Movie Review: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

A melancholy western, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford traces events leading to the death of the famous outlaw. 

In Missouri of 1881, 19-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) sidles up to the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Jesse is all of 34 years old but already a legend, celebrated in local comics as a Robin Hood-type southern hero standing up to the unionists. But now the decimated James gang is reduced to seeking help from any local bandits, opening the door for Robert and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell).

Other hangers-on and wannabes include scuzzy relatives and friends like Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Battling insomnia and internal demons, Jesse is in a state of constant agitation and finds it difficult to trust anyone. But he is revered by Robert, who is equal parts star-struck and ambitious beyond his talents. As jealousies and tensions tear the gang apart, Jesse's options narrow, and Robert ponders his next move.

In addition to the long-winded title only marginally summarizing 160 minutes of cinema into 10 words, the adaptation of Ron Hansen's 1983 historical novel suffers from a few other problems. This is a story of outlaws plotting against outlaws, thieves and murderers turning against each other and settling scores in slow motion. Allies and enemies are one and the same, and in each other's company they either sleep lightly, or not at all. With none of the characters deserving of sympathy, the plot is an emotional slog until everyone meets their deserved comeuppance. 

The pacing is slow, the dialogue exchanges are perforated by ponderous gaps, and the overall mood is of grave predeterminism, the characters seemingly aware of the outcome having no doubt read the full title. Women are essentially non-existent in this story. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel show up on the margins, but have no more than ten words to say. Important characters like Frank James just drop out without explanation. And despite the mammoth length, writer and director Andrew Dominik still resorts to wordy narration, demonstrating a lack of confidence in the on-screen material.

But some strong positives do maintain interest. Roger Deakins' cinematography is often spellbinding, and the music (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) adds soulful possibilities. Dominik's prose, once finally articulated between the pregnant pauses, is often achingly lyrical. And despite the epic scope, ultimately the drama distills to an intimate psychological showdown between two men. 

The study of hero-worship is superb, Robert Ford a restless kid entranced by Jesse James and dreaming of achieving similar exploits - maybe by replacing his hero. The dynamic between the two men is often electric, Dominik teasing out the danger of lies and the importance of reading silence and observing body language. Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck deliver engrossing performances full of restless agitation, bringing to life two men testing confidence limits as they toy with death.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is frustratingly overblown and self-aggrandizing. It is also absorbing, visually captivating, and brilliantly well-acted.



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