Geek Smithology

February 17, 2008

Review – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Filed under: Sight by Nathan @ 9:07 am


I’m a sucker for quasi biographical westerns[1]. I’ve been looking forward to catching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, if only to see if the movie is longer than the spoilerific title. It is.

After a long reign of terror, brothers Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepherd) are the only members of the infamous James gang still not dead or imprisoned. Naturally, rather than retire and sell shoes, they put together a ragtag band of smalltime hoods for one last great train robbery. Then they’ll retire and sell shoes. A skittish young man (Casey Affleck) introduces himself as Bob Ford. He wants to be the old man’s sidekick. Frank tell him to get lost, and even though it’s obvious the kid is a creep that should be led by the ear back to his momma, instead he makes his way into Jesse’s circle. This must be the movie’s way of telling us that Jesse is deranged, should we miss all of the other Pitt “look at me I’m playing deranged” mannerisms.

Bob stays behind after the robbery, and the kid is obviously enamored with the robber. He studies every conversation, every word, every inflection until finally called out: “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” Bob gets the boot and during the ensuing misadventures, kills a James family cousin when coming the the rescue of his friend James Liddil (Paul Schneider). The movie is unclear as exactly how or why, but Ford is soon working with the governor (James Carville) to bring Jesse down. Conveniently (but this is history, you can’t make this stuff up) the increasingly unstable outlaw ends up deciding that Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) are the only two people he can trust. When that trust is broken by a newspaper article, the titular assassination occurs.

And then the movie jumps the shark. It’s reached its natural end, but instead of letting us go, an extended (and excruciating) denouement ensues, with a bland narrator (why they didn’t keep the voice that narrated the trailer is a mystery) telling us about the sad and boring end of Ford’s life. This would be undesirable in the best circumstances, but in a movie with that falls 20 minutes short of three hours, it is unforgivable. Rather than a three and a half hour director’s cut, I would love to see a 100 minute editor’s cut. This material requires precise storytelling, not meandering meditation.

Casey Affleck will get recognition for his role here (indeed, he has been nominated for an Oscar) but he was better in Gone Baby Gone, while Sam Rockwell does a good job playing a man scared for his life. Brad Pitt plays his character as a bully and a murderer for whom a cigar might be more than just a cigar. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but unlike the way Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer disappeared in Tombstone, Brad Pitt never ceases to be Brad Pitt to become Jesse James. Maybe it’s his status as an actor.

In many ways, Jesse James is the embodiment of American mythology. Over the years he’s been eulogized, idolized, and idealized. But the film’s portrayal of James gets it closer to the mark. The man was a lout who deserved punishment. The Assassination of Jesse James leaves the decision as to whether or not justice was served to the audience

two and a half star

[1] Except for Wyatt Earp – it did all the sucking on its own.

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