The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

One Legend Ends With A Bang And A Wimper In This Character-Driven Western

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
“Hand over that there tiny bathtub
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Following hot on the horse tracks of 3:10 to Yuma, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would seem to argue convincingly for the healthy revival of the Hollywood Western. Instead, comparing and contrasting these two films seems to prove that “The Western” isn’t so much a genre as a backdrop. Whereas 3:10 to Yuma was a rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ cowboy pic with a hint of moral quandary for flavor, TAoJJbtCRF (I’m gonna run out of words in this review if I keep typing it) is a sober rumination on fame, fortune and infamy with nary a gunfight in sight.

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen and directed by Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik (whose 2000 debut
Chopper set tongues wagging), the film tries to put the life and death of notorious Wild West outlaw Jesse James in a rather modern context. The film picks up around 1881, when brothers Frank and Jesse James (Sam Shepard and Brad Pitt) are preparing to pull off what looks to be the last of their spectacular train robberies. The rest of their infamous gang have all been killed or put in jail, so the duo is obliged to hire a mixed lot of hillbillies, good-for-nothings and distant relatives. Among the second category is one Robert Ford (played with star-making perfection by Casey Affleck). The 19-year-old Ford has spent his life worshipping Jesse James. At the time, you’ve got to understand, Jesse James was a superstar, the anti-hero of dozens of dime pulp novels and a favorite headline in newspapers. Ford had idolized the exploits of Jesse James since childhood. Having the opportunity to rob a train with Jesse James was basically this kid’s Make-a-Wish dream come true.

Early on, it’s apparent that Robert Ford is one screwed-up pipsqueak—a little dumb, a little naive, a little starstruck. He gives off that “stalker” vibe, which is basically what he was. “I don’t know if you wanna be like or become me,” says Jesse at one highly prophetic point. Despite the lack of trust most people seem to put into Robert, Jesse actually tolerates him. Embodied wholeheartedly by Pitt, this Jesse James is vain, mean, charismatic, paranoid, dangerous and a little bit weary of the world at large. Sporting a few wrinkles around his pretty boy eyes and embracing a sadistic streak he hasn’t shown since … let’s go all the way back to
Kalifornia, Pitt makes for a magnetic protagonist. By the 1880s, Jesse’s legend was just about played out. Brother Frank had retired and Jesse was trying to keep up the family name with a string of ambitious robbery plans that never seemed to come to fruition. Creepy as that Ford kid might have been, he seemed to give Jesse what he needed at the moment: a bit of unadulterated, confidence-building hero worship.

The film is narrated in the sort of eloquently drab style of a PBS documentary (actually, it sounds quite a bit like last year’s Oscar nominee Little Children ). Combine that with Dominik’s meticulous eye for detail and you’ve got a film that feels bracingly authentic. Of course, there are those who will find themselves bogged down by the film’s attention to minutiae. Clocking in just south of three hours, the film does require patience on the part of its viewers. Despite a few quick bursts of brutal violence, there isn’t much action here, and that’s sure to drive away the mainstream crowds expecting six-gun shootouts and a shirtless Brad Pitt. There isn’t a great deal of narrative surprise in store, either, what with the film’s high point more or less spoiled right there in the title.

In fact, it isn’t until the film’s extended post-climax that the chickens really come home to roost.
The Assassination … is less analogous to traditional westerns like High Noon and closer in spirit to (believe it or not) 1997’s star biopic Selena. Robert Ford is basically the 19 th -century equivalent of Yolanda Saldívar, the president of Selena’s fan club who capped off her sad story by gunning down the popular Tejano singer. Jesse James was a killer, a thief and not a terribly nice guy. But he was seen as a rebellious folk hero, a sort of American Robin Hood (even though he never quite got around to giving his money to the poor). And Ford killed him for all the wrong reasons under some patently uncomfortable circumstances. It was a lousy end to a great story, and Ford spent the rest of his life both reliving and regretting it.

Ultimately, the film is more about Ford than James, and Affleck carries the film convincingly. You never really sympathize with this twitchy, obsessive, sycophantic nobody, but you can easily empathize with the pure Greek tragedy he wrought. Dark, deliberately paced and brilliantly acted,
TAoJJbtCRF is a fitting epitaph to the Old West—and maybe even the Western itself. Call it a sad sendoff to the era of heroes and villains and an introduction to the age of attention whores, headline grabbers and people who became famous for doing nothing.

yew polecat!”

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