The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

November, 2007, Drama

Directed by:Andrew Dominik

Starring:Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, and Sam Rockwell

Even if you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can occasionally judge a film by its title, as is the case with the wordy heading given this doggedly pretensions retro-Western from New Zealand-born writer/director Andrew Dominik. Chopper, his only other movie, detailed the life of Mark “Chopper” Read, an Australian thug who wrote an autobiography from his prison cell which Dominik developed into a critically acclaimed film debut in 2000. Dominik revisits the subject of career criminals in this re-telling of the last days of Jesse James, the bank robber and murderer who with his brother Frank and their band of cutthroats terrorized a large portion of western Missouri in the turbulent decade following The Civil War. Part history lesson, part psycho-drama and suffused with self-importance, Assassination does for Jesse James what Arthur Penn did to Billy the Kid in The Left Handed Gun, by depicting criminal folk heroes of the 19th century in embarrassingly contemporary psychological terms. 

Jesse is played by Brad Pitt, who provides a suitably glamorized portrait of a sociopath whose exploits earned him the puppy-dog admiration of Robert Ford, (Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother) a young criminal wannbe anxious to join James’ crew of brigands in the final stages of their crime wave. A sizeable reward offered by Missouri’s governor made James an appealing target, understandably increasing the fugitive’s already considerable paranoia. Ford emerges as a punk so mesmerized by James’ celebrity that he becomes the latter’s flunky, swallowing his leader’s humiliations until a combination of fear, greed and jealousy provide the necessary fuel for shooting James from behind in the living room of the home the outlaw had rented for himself and his family in St. Joseph Missouri. Ford turned himself in, collected the reward and lived with the resulting notoriety until his own murder in a Creed Colorado saloon a decade after James’ death.

Beware the writer who falls in love with his own dialogue and actors seduced by a director’s decision to make each exchange so momentous it’s be lingered over like a glass of Grand Crux Bordeaux; the characters in Assassination are banal lowlifes, yet Dominik ass his cast present them as though they were figures worthy of Shakespearian interest. Faced with the challenge of bringing these inarticulate goons to life, the actors wrap their lines with lots of physical mugging; Ford’s older brother Charley, (a sweetly dim-witted Sam Rockwell) and the obviously talented Affleck lurch through the dialogue provided for them with various dim-bulb expressions as though each word possesses multiple, layered meaning. Pitt, (who won best acting honors from The Venice Film Festival) brings just the right touch of glamorous monstrosity to Jesse, punctuating his growing paranoia with narcissistic concern for his outlaw image. In a particularly telling nifty bit of theatricality, the actor employs a slithering tongue which looks positively reptilian as it telegraph’s Jesse’s lethal pathology. Yet it’s the taciturn Sam Shepard who provides the film’s only fully credible performance as Jesse’s older brother Frank; with brisk clarity, he embodies an older and wiser crook who wisely decides to get out of the game while he still can. Unfortunately, his departure comes far too soon to save the pace of Assassination from cinematic rigor mortis. The result is a movie that proceeds even more glacially than its 2 and ½+ hour running time, boring audiences to death long before Ford puts a bullet in the back of James’ head. 

It’s a shame that so much effort has been put to such frustrating purpose; the film’s production design and costumes, (provided by Patricia Norris) are superb; period details abound, from collarless shirts to authentic weaponry. Five-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins employs the flat, grey landscapes and leaden skies of the Midwestern prairie to suggest that nature itself is as barren and unforgiving as the personalities that inhabit this bleak, beautifully-photographed movie. Even the film’s voice-over narrative, (provided in sonorous tones reminiscent of author David McCullough’s work on innumerable PBS documentaries) manages to lend a note of historic authenticity to the film’s extended denouement, which traces the public’s elevation of James to mythic status while consigning Ford to life as a parasitic outcast. 

Eliminate the director’s proclivity for overly-mannered performances and ¾’s of an hour of its running time and this could have been a compelling re-imagining of the classic western. In its present form however, it becomes yet another example of Cimino-ism my term for the hubris which caused Michael Cimino to follow the brilliant The Deer Hunter with Heaven’s Gate, his disastrous exploration of the Old West. It sank his career, (and United Artists, the studio which financed it) a fate Dominik would be well advised to ponder as he ponders his next assignment.



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