The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) (R)



















The evolution of what we now know to be "the modern western" started back in the years of the spaghetti westerns. Films like Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" helped define the western and John Wayne's film cementing that fact. Then we have a slight change with Clint Eastwood's directorial works like "Unforgiven" which tells a story in a straightforward fashion—no fancy tricks are needed here.
But there is a drastic change from "Unforgiven" which was made in 1992, to the movies made in 2007. A resurgence in the interests of years past and stories of the west, led 2007 to see "There Will Be Blood", "No Country for Old Men", and (the most overlooked) "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". But it becomes apparent when looking at these films that "modern westerns" are not westerns at all...just dramas of a different setting. The Coens realized this and when they returned with "True Grit" it sealed the fact that the western of the 20th century is something that is gone forever.
Good bio-dramas never idolize...they celebrate and appreciate; but they never glorify. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is no exception to this...it portrays both its main characters with a fairness and a justice that is rarely seen—for that, and a number of other facts, it is a great movie.
We begin in 1881 when Jesse James's fame was at its peak and his career was near its end. Our narrator tells us of Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt): he was a man of physical flaws...he was missing part of a finger and he had gun shot wounds that left scars. A condition of the eyes made him blink more than normal, though this never affected his social skills. He was a charmer, someone who could make the room seem warmer and make sounds grow louder. Jesse James had a huge following and one of the people who fawned after him was a young man named Robert Ford.
Robert, or Bob (Casey Affleck) is a boy under the spell of an celebrity. He wished to have grand adventures with Jesse James and has idolized the man ever since he was old enough to read. Saving newspaper clippings and comics about the famous bandit, Bob turns himself into a super-fan.
But Bob's idea of Jesse James and the actual man differ. Jesse's brother, Frank (Sam Shepard) is not so eccentric as counterpart.
Bob approaches the James brothers and offers his services as a criminal but is turned down by Frank, the stickler.
From here on out we see the mind of two men, constantly whirling and turning. It's not that they are archenemies, in fact, they are anything but opponents. Yet the film lets emotions churn and turn into malice and hatred and fear...the character development is stunning.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is curious because the viewer knows how the movie will "end" at the beginning, just by the title. Keep in mind that writer/director Andrew Dominik uses this title ironically—it has a different meaning than you might assume. Dominik is a genius when it comes to this movie...even though there will be no surprises, he creates great tension and suspense. 
Brad Pitt may have the more iconic role and the famous baddie, but it's Casey Affleck who shines in this film. He's mesmerizing to watch...his performance is a brilliant look into a man's head.
The film looks great, as it should...the cinematography is provided by ten-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins. 
Everything that should be present, is here—the portrayal of another time, the ensemble cast, the music, and the thought behind the film. It's smarter than you might assume. 
The question arises: what is cowardice? The film never condemns any of the actions of its characters. Instead, it lets the viewer make up their own mind about the men and women...very effective and clever.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a long movie...there's no escaping that fact. But unlike some of its contemporaries (namely "There Will Be Blood"), you can barely tell. It's completely engrossing and hypnotic and deserving of so much more praise than it got.
This film makes me happy that the western is gone; because if these are the movies that replace, I'm not sad to see it go. 
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is, simply put, a fantastic movie.







Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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