Film Review: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Written by: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen (novel)
Rated: R
Rating: 5 (five out of five)

When a movie begins with a voice over narration, I can’t help but shudder slightly.  Voice over’s are rarely used in a way that works, and when it does work, the question still remains of why it was there in the first place.  There are notable exceptions that I can easily think of:  Amelie, The Shawshank Redemption, or The Royal Tennenbaums – all use VO narration extremely well.  VO narration can easily destroy a movie, as seen in certain cuts of Blade Runner or the latest Transforrmers movie.

When The Assassination Of Jesse James started with voice over work, combined with it’s runtime of 160 minutes (apparently cut down from over four hours!) – I began sweating.

I’m happy to report that the narration is not only apropos for the story, but it’s also so well written, read, and timed that it makes the movie a true masterpiece.

The story seems painfully obvious from the title.  It is, indeed, about the assassination of the infamous outlaw Jesse James by his own gang member Robert Ford.  On the surface, that is all it is.  In reality it is so much more.

This is a beautiful character study.

The story begins with one of the James Gang’s last robbery’s – a train robbery in Blue Cut, MO, in 1881.  Jesse (Pitt) is already part legend at this point, with his name and made-up deeds gracing the dime store novels across the country.

The voice over narration has already introduced us to Jesse.  Into the serene moments before the robbery, enter Robert Ford (Affleck).  He’s given no graceful introduction.  Instead he enters awkwardly.

Ford is full of hero worship.  He idolizes the James Gang, especially Jesse.  He wants nothing more than to be a part of the Gang, to be a part of Jesse’s life, to be a part of that legend – to be the legend himself.  He wants nothing more than to be Jesse.

His worship has reached such an incredible height that it’s crossed the line into lust.  Jesse is decidedly straight, and a consummation of the affair is impossible.  Both parties know how it must end.

After the Blue Cut train robbery, Jesse splits from his Gang and spends time home with his wife.  There are moments of Jesse as a family man.  There are moments of Jesse as the Gang leader.  Both are in stark contrast with each other.

All the while is Ford, lingering in the background, bringing the doomed conclusion ever closer.  Jesse’s paranoia and suspicions of his own gang members grows and he begins to loose sleep.  His end is known to him.

On one quiet Monday in 1882, the inevitable occurs.  In recorded history, Jesse took of his coat, then removed his guns so his neighbors would not become suspicious of him.  He notices that a picture isn’t hanging quite straight, as he stands on a chair to level the frame, Ford takes the shot.  This movie presents it in a significantly different light – how could Jesse have not know what was coming when he knew everything else?  He was able to skip town days before the police arrived.  He was able to flee a scene moments before the heavy artillery came in.  Why didn’t he flee the moment Ford entered his life and his fate was decided?

The rest of the movie is a poem, and ode of sorts to the ragged life that Ford and his brother Charley (Rockwell), who was present for everything, lead until their respective ends.

The final lines of narration are perfection.

At a runtime of 160 minutes, and with a quiet, deliberate pace, it’s not a movie that the masses of 2008/2009 are looking for.  It’s reminiscent of old-time epics, where the landscape is a character of it’s own (thanks to Roger Deakins gorgeous cinematography).

This is a ridiculously good film.  Beautiful.  Tragic.  Poetic.

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