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The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

USA 2007
Directed by
Andrew Dominik
160 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Andrew Lee
4.5 stars

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Synopsis: Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has idolised Jesse James (Brad Pitt) since he was twelve years old. His older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is a member of the James gang and helps Robert to join the circle. But Robert’s dreams slowly fade in the face of ugly reality, and he starts to fear and loathe the man he worshipped.

I really wish Andrew Dominik had directed Ned Kelly (2003) instead of Gregor Jordon. On the evidence of  this film and Chopper (2000) he clearly has an ability to eviscerate a legend while painting a portrait of a human being. Jesse James is a paranoid psychopath who nonetheless is a loving husband and father. He’s a divided person, his violence always lurking below the surface but almost always under control. He’s no folk hero however and the deconstruction of the mythic West is brought home to us through the eyes of Robert Ford. Worshipping the idealised figure of Jesse James from childhood, reading cheap paperback novels that celebrate the notorious criminal's exploits, Ford's fantasy is vested with seven years of dreaming. But fantasy has to die when reality kicks in.

There is a word for fantasy made reality - nightmare - and Robert's painful initiation into real life is what delivers the emotional force of this excellent film. Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is one of the most complex characters to come along in cinema for quite a while. Who would have thought a criminal could have a stalker? A man (a boy really) who has worshipped Jesse James from afar, who thinks about all the different ways he and Jesse are similar, and who obviously desires to become like Jesse, if not actually be Jesse himself. It's both creepy and sad.

Nobody in this film is particularly likeable. Everyone is out for themselves, burdened with fears and uncontrollable urges. Friendship counts for nothing, and every noble ideal of honour among thieves is coolly discarded when inconvenient. Robert's initial attempts at trying to ingratiate himself only serve to highlight how selfish everyone, including Robert, really is.

The title is interesting however, because of all the characters in the film, the only one who ever seems to demonstrate even a modicum of courage is Robert Ford. He kills Jesse James when everyone who has ever had a chance has lost their nerve. He faces down Jesse on more than one occasion and challenges other men directly, even when outmatched, when they would rather hide behind Jesse or the law. And when popular opinion turns against him he confronts it head on, challenging men to test his courage. But there’s a definite question whether it’s courage he’s got or just the sulks that his dreams are turning into ashes. He’s an unsettling presence, and Casey Affleck is going to get a lot of attention for his performance. It’s one of the most nuanced and affecting portrayals of conflicted youth in years. The film is his.

A melancholy meditation on very sad and psychotic people, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford strikes one as a beautiful film. But can something that so ruthlessly destroys any illusion of the good in people truly be called beautiful?

FYI: Nicholas Ray did a version of the same story, The True Story of Jesse James in 1957. Although the latter is a much inferior film, Dominik lifted the idea of Nick Cave's peripatetic song from it (I'm presuming that it wasn't in the 1939 version which I haven't seen. Ironically, it is the one regretable aspect of Dominik's film.




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