Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

assassination_jesse_jamesAccording to Wikipedia, it took almost two years to edit “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” and it’s still two hours and 40 minutes long. This is 20 minutes shorter than writer/director Andrew Dominik’s original cut, but 40 minutes longer than it needs to be. Were it not anchored by two agreeable performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in the title roles, the movie would have been completely lost in a wash of chilly rural country sides and fish-eye lens shots.

The movie begins before the James Gang’s last train robbery. The members of the James Gang, led by James brothers Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) are either dead or in jail, so they are forced to bring in some second-tier goons to do the job. One of these goons is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the younger brother of Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) and lifelong admirer of Jesse. The job goes off without a hitch, and Jesse retires to Missouri with his family, living under an alias. Jesse, however, had become overly suspicious in his later years, and after getting a bad vibe from the local townspeople, he moves his family in the dead of night on a hunch, and sure enough, four members of his crew from the last train robbery are soon arrested. Now convinced that one of the men who participated in that heist will turn him in, Jesse hunts down a few of the other members of the group before they can squeal, and Robert, knowing that he is surely the next to die, strikes a deal with the Missouri governor (insert unnecessary cameo role here) to end Jesse’s reign one way or the other.

The movie, in a manner that I can only assume closely models Ron Hansen’s novel of the same name, goes to great, great lengths to make Robert look every bit the yellow-bellied traitor that the title suggests. He was teased by his brother and every member of Jesse’s gang, including Jesse himself. The government officials who dealt with him were dismissive as well. The mistake that Dominik makes, though (and perhaps Hansen, though I don’t know for sure since I haven’t read the book), is that you can portray someone as a coward all you want, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a coward. Robert may have been weak, true, but icon status be damned, Jesse was a killer and a thief, and he was going to kill both Robert and Charlie; Robert merely beat him to the punch. In fact, once you’ve watched the scene where Jesse beats up a teenage boy in an attempt to extract information from him, it is not long before you’re asking yourself whether it is Jesse who is the real coward, not Robert. It’s an interesting angle, to be sure. Unfortunately, the movie is not at all interested in exploring it.

Pitt’s Jesse is a rough derivation of his J.D. character from “Thelma & Louise,” only not as charming. The (flat) narration attributes a myriad of emotions to Jesse, but you see little besides cunning and paranoid. Perhaps the most amusing scene is when the narrator describes a condition that causes Jesse to blink repeatedly, as we watch a long shot of Pitt not blinking once. Affleck, who looks like David Byrne’s twin brother here, fares better, though his tendency to mumble grows tiresome. Mary-Louise Parker is wasted as Jesse’s wife (she was also Jesse’s first cousin, ewww), but the acting is not what makes or breaks the movie. It’s the languid pacing, where seemingly every scene is overlong by anywhere from ten seconds to a minute and a half.

You can see why Pitt, Dominik and executive producer Ridley Scott were drawn to “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Hollywood loves to make movies about the cult of celebrity, and at this story’s center is a man who wanted to be famous, only to become famous in the worst way possible. In truth, the story of Jesse and Robert is a mob tale set in the Old West and disguised as a treatise on fame – is Robert Ford really any different than Henry Hill, the “Goodfellas?” gangster who chose a life as an informant over death? – only the narrator hates his central character’s guts. I’ve heard of westerns being all about the anti-hero, but this is ridiculous.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

This originally ran October 19, 2007 on

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