The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

*****

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

The Western myth evolved out of penny dreadfuls, depicting the deeds of infamous gunslingers and resolute lawmen. Disguised beneath the imaginings of fictional heroics, truth struggled into the light, but no one wanted to know.

Kiwi writer/director Andrew Dominik wants to know, which is why The Assassination Of… doesn’t look like a Western. The colours are faded browns and sober blacks, as louring as the sky which goes on forever and as sombre as snow which covers the nakedness of a man murdered in cold blood.

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A narrative voice tells the story with calm objectivity, using the words of novelist Ron Hansen. There is no intention to deceive, no ambition to exaggerate. The James Gang is about to break up. The year is 1881. Jesse (Brad Pitt) is 34. He is married with children, living in Kansas City under the name Thomas Howard.

The myth is out there. Dime store novellas that extol Jesse as a modern Robin Hood are selling like mint juleps at a Fourth of July carnival. He has killed 14 men and robbed more than a dozen trains, a Southern gentleman from the defeated army of Robert E Lee, making amends for the atrocities of those damn Yankees. Dominik and Hansen see him differently. Paranoid, psychotic, unpredictable, ruthless and charming, he has the qualities of a despot and the charisma of a rattlesnake. His celebrity may be based on romantic wish fulfillment but his presence demands respect.

Ironically, the film is Robert’s, not Jesse’s. This boy, this 19-year-old sliver of a youth, wants the recognition of belonging to the gang, even though there is nothing left for it to do after the Blue Cut raid contributed very little in the way of booty. Jesse knows that the times they are a’changin’, sensitive to signs of disloyalty, now that brother Frank (Sam Shepard) has gone and there is a price on his head.

Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), fifth in line and always the kid in the family, wants to be a player, not the coward who shot the most famous outlaw in the West. Frank rejects him as untrustworthy and weak. Jesse tolerates him as a possible sidekick once the years have stilled his troubled mind.

The film is not action packed in a traditional style, but filled with tension and intrigue. Hiding out in the country, Bob’s brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), who has a penchant for the ladies, wait. Jesse establishes alternative identities and moves lock, stock and six guns whenever danger threatens. Relationships between the men are nervous and uncertain. Bob hangs in there, wordy and sly and watchful, quick to take offence and yet never deceitful like his brother, nor cunning like the others.

Although tantalisingly long and beautifully photographed (Roger Deakins), The Assassination Of… is closer to the art of cinema than Gunfight At The OK Corral. It is a character piece, an actor’s picture, supremely atmospheric and secure in its knowledge of place and time. Pitt has the ability to define the spirit of Jesse, like a soldier’s memory of death, stained by the blood of the innocent and warped by pride, while Affleck is outstanding in his depiction of failure, elevated by an act of betrayal.

Once Westerns became a genre, certain rules had to be obeyed. In the same way that The Proposition is better for its distance, The Assassination Of… ignores the rules and stands alone, like The Left Handed Gun (1958), Arthur Penn’s eulogy to Billy The Kid. As Bob Ford says of Jesse, “He’s only a human being,” neither a god, nor Shane, and human beings can be killed, like history can be retold in the language of ordinary men.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2007
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Director: Andrew Dominik

Writer: Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Joel McNichol, Mary-Louise Parker, Brooklynn Proulx, Dustin Bollinger

Year: 2007

Runtime: 160 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

London 2007

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