TIFF Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2007
I'll be honest: I'm not a lifelong fan of Westerns. I used to consider them too long and boring, and I hated the whole cowboy culture they represented. After first hearing about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I knew I needed to see it but I wasn't really sure why. After this 2 hour, 40 minute spectacle was over, I had gained a new appreciation for Westerns. As a film buff who appreciates great cinema, exquisite acting, and visually profound theatrical experiences, I highly recommend The Assassination of Jesse James.
The film begins with the legendary outlaw Jesse James's (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank James's (Sam Shepard) last train robbery, where a gang of inexperienced outlaws including brothers Robert (Casey Affleck) and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) join the Jameses in their final escapade. The story primarily follows the young and naive Robert Ford as he tries to join the James gang and travel alongside his idol Jesse James. By this time, Jesse had split from his brothers and had decided to live a simpler life with his wife and kids while still evading the authorities. As time goes by, Robert becomes further invested with Jesse and his friends and family and becomes resentful of Jesse, eventually leading to his cowardice and Jesse's murder.
There is so much to the story in The Assassination of Jesse James's lengthy run time that there's no way to even begin to explain it. This is just one part of what makes it such a brilliant film - you get to explore the story, the characters, and the locations in great depth. While others may refer to it as a lengthy expose that could've been easily shortened, I enjoyed being brought into the world of Jesse James and Robert Ford and being shown the full story of the relationship between the two. If you can handle 2 hours and 40 minutes then you'll easily be able to understand why it's such a fulfilling film.
On top of the story, director Andrew Dominik creates one of the most visually profound films of this entire year. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain last year, The Assassination of Jesse James has beautiful cinematography and scenery. Although the budget limited scenes set in busy towns, what Dominik put in is gorgeous. The rumors are true: there are brief scenes where only the clouds float by for a few seconds, but these moments are not problematic. They're temporary relief to savor the beauty of the moment before continuing further into the immense story.
The Assassination of Jesse James wasn't created as a shoot ’em up Western with non-stop action; it's a drama, with more talking than anything else. For me it was a new style of Western that allowed me to learn to appreciate what sets the genre apart from others. It's the kind of film where breathtaking storytelling is accompanied by an idyllic score and an atmosphere built on characters rather than action. Finally I had been able to understand the subtleties of the Western genre: it's the characters and their interaction that makes so many great Western films as amazing as they are.
Ever since Fight Club I've appreciated Brad Pitt's acting. I used to think he was just a glossy eye-candy actor, but The Assassination of Jesse James yet again proves that he is capable of the most demanding roles. His portrayal of the infamous Jesse James is so meticulously perfect that I wouldn't be surprised if he gets an Oscar or at least a Golden Globe. Following him is a line-up of incredibly talented actors that rivals any other ensemble in the past decade: Casey Affleck as the coward Robert Ford, the always entertaining Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil, and Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite; each delivers their own incredibly worthy performance.
I can't praise The Assassination of Jesse James enough. Even above 3:10 to Yuma, the other big Western this year, I enjoyed the lengthy but serene storytelling in Jesse James more. The Western is one of the few genres that can tell as rich of a story as this because of the intricate characters immersed within the old-time setting. Not only have I come to appreciate Westerns through The Assassination of Jesse James, but I've found one of my favorite films of the year.
Reader Feedback - 6 Comments
The family of Jesse James has posted its own review of the movie to its family web site, Stray Leaves. http://www.ericjames.org/Reviews/AssassinationofJesseJames/index.html
Eric on Sep 30, 2007
I agree wholeheartedly with this review. The best film of 2007 so far, and destined to be a classic. As far as I'm concerned, it's another Treasure of Sierra Madre.
Jill on Oct 17, 2007
It's not that I didn't like it. Saw it yesterday followed by Q and A with Andrew Dominik. It was beautiful, Casey Affleck was remarkable, Brad Pitt was... Brad Pitt - beautiful and haunting. Was the assasination cowardice? Or was it simple kill or be killed? Is that cowardice? Don't believe the hype of the Ballad of Jesse James. He was a brutal, racist, psychopath. Robert Ford believed the false hype, but let's not. OK - forget about history. Why did we get not a single inkling of the close relationship between Jess and his cousin who the Ford boys were so sure would be avenged by James? I'm guessing that glance, or short exchange between the cousins to let us in on their relationship was left on the cutting room floor. We were shown some great things (like the cold relationship between Jess and Frank), but mostly we were told things. I love films that don't hand the audience every emotion or understanding they are supposed to have - and this film did that. I loved watching it (thank you Roger Deakins and Dominik for your eyes), but it was by no means a perfect film in terms of character development.
Maureen Cronin on Oct 21, 2007
What evidence do you offer that Jesse James was a racist?
Eric on Oct 21, 2007
He fought hard for the south because he believed in slavery.
Red D on Feb 21, 2009
Then how do you explain those slaves within the James family who lived freely? And those enslaved of the James family who chose to remain with the family following emanication? The fighting of the James brothers had very little to do with slavery, unless one calculates the James themsevles as being enslaved by banking and railroad interests, which in effect they had become. Like their James forefathers, the James brothers most decidedly were fighting for their own freedoms.
Eric on Feb 21, 2009
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