Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Assassination of Jesse James2007. Starring Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell. Directed by Andrew Dominik.

A film that announces its conclusion in the title promises to cast the events through some very subjective filters. The legend of Jesse James, I’m sure, is known by most people much like it’s sung by a barroom busker (nice cameo, Nick Cave), mistakenly crediting Jesse with stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He also gets the number of Jesse’s kids wrong.

But it doesn’t matter, because legends are legends, and as John Ford taught us in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. You won’t sell many picture postcards of thieves who shoot fellow thieves in the back.

Casey Affleck turns in some nice work as the moony-eyed Robert Ford, who along with his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell), joins the James Gang for a late-in-the-career train robbery. Robert has been obsessed with Jesse James since he was a child, reading of the gang’s exploits and memorizing details about Jesse that he believes mirrors his life. But after the robbery and Frank James’ dissolution of the outfit, Jesse rides across country, visiting his comrades and dispatching them.

Jesse (Brad Pitt) is depressed and paranoid, and can’t sleep. The surviving members of the gang believe he’s capable of reading minds, somehow knowing their motives from far away. When he appears riding toward them in the distance, they begin to doubt their courage, and enough of their guilt shows through to confirm his suspicions. Down to his final two friends, Jesse collects the Ford brothers for a planned bank robbery and they go along, expecting all the while to have their brains blown out by their distrustful leader.

The assassination of the increasingly erratic James could have been performed by Charlie, but Robert seizes the moment. Immediately they race to the telegraph office and send a confession. Soon the brothers are on stage, re-enacting the deed over and over again for a paying audience. But the boastful yarn of shooting a legend through the back wears out quickly, and Robert Ford spends his days dragging his notoriety behind him. “You know what I expected?” he asks of a lover years later. “Applause.”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is visually beautiful, shot at times with a lens that centers its focus and blurs the periphery, much like photos of the era. There are scenes of incredible, simple beauty that really amaze me: sunlight creeping across a wooden floor; a muddy road between houses that has yet to become a street, a field of dry wheat whose rustling hides the conspiratorial voices of the Ford brothers plotting their betrayal. There is a quick scene of Affleck splashing bathwater to chase away a cow that is so lovely that it nearly made me forget to question why his hot bath was taking place in a field so far from the house.

And in nearly every shot taken from inside a house looking out, there are windowpanes of old glass, whose imperfections skew and distort the view beyond. But two-and-a-half hours of authentic sets and inventive lens effects cannot take away from a narration that falls somewhere between Ric Burns and Vin Scully. I don’t know if I could have followed the story without all the spoken subtext, but it might have been more enjoyable to try.

So the legend of the gunslinger lives on, fair or not, while Robert Ford has been vilified. In the end, there is someone willing to track Ford down, to fire an assassin’s gun and scrape off a little residual fame for himself. And seeing that reminded me of a moment earlier in the film, when a bandit warned of being caught alone with the legend Jesse James, who robbed and killed innocent people and kept the money for himself. “Don’t let him get behind you,” the thief warns, well aware that Jesse wasn’t beneath shooting a partner between the shoulder blades. It’s almost as if some legends are just regular thieves and cowards viewed through those beautifully imperfect windowpanes.

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