I’ve really been into westerns lately. My lastest viewing is the recently released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This movie is quite a contrast from 3:10 to Yuma. It’s a much slower pace than 3:10 and while that movie was almost as much a psychological thriller as action movie, TAoJJbtCRF takes the psychological element to another level. There are some thrilling scenes and some action, but at it’s heart it’s a character study of two pretty fascinating individuals.
The first is the famed gunslinger Jesse James played by Brad Pitt, who you may recognize from the Ocean’s ## movies and countless grocery store tabloid magazine covers. Pitt plays James as a dangerous man living on the frayed edges of sanity. In a few scenes he lets out a freaky laugh I don’t even know quite how to describe. It’s not exactly manical, but it’s very effective in conveying James’ seemingly unstable grasp on self-restraint. The glory days of the Frank and Jesse James gang are in the past and Jesse is looking for one last score before retiring into full time family life with his wife and two children. Unfortunately, most of his former conspirers are either in prison or dead, some by his own suspicious hand, and his only resort is to bring along second string outlaws Charlie Ford and his brother Robert. A decision that would prove fateful.
Robert Ford is played by Casey Affleck in an Oscar nominated performance that makes his older brother look like a hack. Bob Ford was only twenty when he and his older brother hooked up with the James gang. For most of his life he’d idolized Jesse James, reading stories of his exploits in dime novels and newspapers. He knew just about everything there was to know about Jesse James, to the point of obsession. His other great passion was his pursuit of personal glory and recognition. He tells Frank James that he honestly believes he’s destined for great things…despite the fact that he has no special talents or abilities. Affleck hit the role out of the park. His Robert Ford is a cross between childlike admiration of James and a burning desire to be known.
Through a series of interconnected events, the Ford brothers become involved in a murder that they fear will draw James’ wrath should he discover their involvement. Knowing their days may be numbered they cut a deal with the authorities. Whether they can pull it off is another matter. The scenes surrounding the title event are excruciatingly tense and lend themselves to much post-viewing discussion.
**POSSIBLE SPOILER WARNING**
If you aren’t familiar with the events of Jesse James’ death and would rather learn of them from the movie, don’t read this next section.
Why did Jesse take off his guns? Was he really trying to set the Ford boys’ minds at ease after reading about the arrest and confession, a confession that could connect them with the aforementioned James-ire-inducing murder, of Dick Liddle in the newspaper, as Bob claimed? Did he really not suspect that Bob and Charlie intended to kill him? And if he did know, why didn’t he beat them to the punch? Was it really because he wouldn’t kill them in the presence of his family? Or was he a man at the end of his own rope, not willing or able to continue his increasingly paranoid life on the run? Maybe he just wanted out? The movie, and history, doesn’t always answer these questions clearly.
**END OF SPOILER**
Besides Affleck and Pitt, the rest of the acting is phenomanal. Sam Shepard left me wanting more of his Frank James and Sam Rockwell is great as Robert Ford’s older brother Charlie. It’s a pretty slow moving movie and it is long, but I never found myself getting bored, thanks in large part to the stunning photography of Roger Deakins. Some have criticized it for being a bit self-indulgent at times, but it was such nice looking self-indulgence I guess I didn’t notice or care. The soundtrack is simple and haunting and adds weight to every scene. All-in-all a very worthwhile movie, for its cinematic qualities and the fascinating questions it raises about America’s foremost outlaw. Here’s a trailer: