Saturday, August 07, 2010

Weekend DVD Pick - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

During it's original release date The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made many movie critics' top ten list and with good reason. The film, adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Hanson was the first major directorial debut by Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik. It is a sweeping epic with a pitch perfect score by Nick Cave, magnificent cinematography, and brilliant performances by Brad Pitt as James and Cassey Affleck as the star struck, and ultimately spurned, Robert Ford.

Those who praised the movie unanimously echoed that it was the best western since "Unforgiven", which, it would seem to me, is setting the bar rather low. What makes the movie so appealing is the absence of a Clint Eastwood, Byron-esque hero running recklessly towards his own damnation. A thematic hero Eastwood has been unable to break with since "Unforgiven" swept the Oscars in 1993.

Conservative critics, most notably James Bowman, praised the film's score and cinematography, but accused it of being little more than a post modernist study in celebrity worship. While it's difficult to dispute that Affleck's Ford is a sycophantic admirer of James, I doubt the film is in any way meant to be allegorical.
The film has many flaws, the most glaring being it's 160 minute running time whittled down from it's original span of well over 3 hours. When a movie, especially a Western, asks it's audience to sit for over 2 hours one would expect a little more red meat than the movie provides. The only heist scene we are let in on, the Blue Cut Train Robbery, serves as the opening sequence of the film. Also, precious little is seen of the supporting cast, most notably the talented Sam Shepard (Frank James) and the always wonderful Sam Rockwell

The movie centers around Jesse as a man living on borrowed time.  James takes into his confidence the star struck Robert Ford, who he misjudges as being too simple minded or spell bound by his own cult of persona that he feels no real threat from him until it is much too late.

Jesse's brutality is slow and methodical, and for the most part unseen as he systematically hunts down the remaining members of the Blue Cut Train Robbery gang. What's brilliant about Pitt's performance is that his obsessive paranoia is always masked behind a facade of cordiality and stoicism. His piercing blue eyes miss nothing as he casually makes house calls to those who have betrayed him. Not to discover where the chess pieces are falling, but to confirm what he already knows by peppering casual conversation with seemingly benign questions.

Pitt allows us brief opportunities to witness the cracks in his veneer, the first being the furious beating of a gang member's young nephews to give up the location of his uncle. James must be forcibly subdued before he risks killing the boy in a frenzy. After leaving the barn, Pitt is seen sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around the neck of his horse. It is one of many great moments in an imperfect film - Is his grief the product of self-pity or is he weeping in disgust at his own brutality wrought upon a child similar in age to his own children?

The ambiguity of his inner torment and the cause of it are left for the audience to ponder. The only insight into the true motives - or competing motives are given in scattered piecemeal throughout the film. In one scene, as the gang awaits the coming of the train in Blue Cut, Missouri, one of the bandits is heard singing an anti-union hymn about "that bastard Lincoln". Earlier on, the robbers engage in a conversation about the virility of General Lee. There is no doubt James has become a folk hero to buoy the spirits of the South after the humiliation of reconstruction, as is well evidenced by the penny books Ford lovingly collects in a box underneath his bed extolling and exaggerating the exploits of the James gang as redeemers of the South's honor. Is James the avenger of the South, or a common thug with a serpentine charm? The movie seems uninterested in answering this question, though it has close to 3 hours to do so.

Ford eventually becomes little more than an errand boy to James, fueling his rage and ultimately leading him to accept the $10,000 bounty for shooting James dead at the request of Missouri's Governor Crittenden.

James' demise is a classic reworking of the tale that has been retold countless times in movies, books, and oral tradition. It involves being shot in the back while fixing a picture - expect in this case, James is seen dusting the picture on a stool, after leaving his sidearms on the love seat. I had wrestled for some time with whether the scene is meant to show James as being careless, or whether it is an explicit act of resignation. The answer is no doubt the latter; James is clearly aware that Ford is simply biding his time, waiting for the opportune monent to dispatch of him.

The fact that James removes his guns and turns his back to Ford is his way of removing any glory Ford hopes to gain for his treachery. As Jesse watches Ford aim the revolver at him through the reflection of the picture, Ford also sees the condescension on James' face reflected back, as if to say "There will be no parades for a coward who shoots an unarmed man in the back".

There are indeed no parades for Robert Ford. Though the act has brings him wealth, he is ridiculed, beaten, spit on and ultimately assassinated himself.

If you're a fan of Tombstone or The Quick and The Dead, this movie will probably bore you to tears. If you fancy yourself a cinematic intellectual of sorts, you won't find the character's rambling on in any post modern soliloquies either. This movie is a visual feast and as mentioned earlier, Nick Cave's subdued but haunting score is complimented beautifully by the pitch perfect narration of Hugh Ross. Pitt and Affleck are spellbinding, and the supporting cast are flawless.

This movie is far from a masterpiece, but when set beside the endless junk being spit out of Hollywood, I still strongly recommend it to my readers.


The movie was co-produced by Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator. In a salute to his fans, there is a scene in the early moments of the film where Jesse's hand is seen gliding over the top of a field of wheat - an almost identical shot that Ridley used at the beginning of Gladiator.



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