Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Beautiful Cinematography
The full title of this lyrical, poetic historical drama is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the protagonist is Bob Ford, who is brilliantly played by Casey Affleck. The antagonist is Jesse James, and Brad Pitt supplies the necessary star power to this role to make the legendary outlaw and folk hero come alive on the screen. The story is a richly detailed account of how Bob Ford, who initially idolized Jesse James, came to kill him.
The director of photography on The Assassination of Jesse James was Roger Deakins, a seven-time Oscar nominee for Best Cinematography, and here he has given us a ravishingly beautiful film. The movie was shot mostly at various locations in Canada, although the story takes place primarily around the Kansas City area.
The Assassination of Jesse James was written and directed by Andrew Dominik, who brings a sensibility quite unlike what we usually get at the multiplex these days. The film is long and deliberately paced, and attention is paid to the minor characters. The story arc is unconventional. The characters, though unschooled, talk a lot, and their conversations are psychologically revealing.
The movie opens in 1881 in a Missouri woodland where Jesse James and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) have assembled a gang of locals to rob a train. The men are country rubes who pass the time by bantering about women, and one gang member advises another, "Poetry don't work on whores."
A young man named Bob Ford approaches Frank James and politely inquires if he can become part of the gang. But as Bob himself admits, "Folks take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make."
It soon emerges that Bob has a serious case of hero worship, and Jesse James lets the kid hang around him. At one point, the celebrated outlaw is in the bathtub when he sees Bob hovering nearby, and Jesse asks him, "Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me?"
Was Jesse James a Hero? Was Robert Ford a Coward?
The film depicts Jesse James as charismatic and even likable, but he is also shown to be scary, ruthless and dangerous. As the voiceover narrator informs us, "He regretted neither his robberies, nor the 17 murders that he laid claim to."
As for Robert Ford, the folksong "The Ballad of Jesse James" seems to express the popular perception of him. In the movie it's performed in a Bowery saloon by a troubadour (Nick Cave), who sings the catchy line about "that dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" (referring to Jesse by one of his aliases).
In the film, Bob Ford is creepy and comes across as being wimpy, yet he proves to be capable of decisive action at key moments. After he kills Jesse's cousin, he has no good options, especially in view of the fact that he is trying to protect not only himself, but also his slowwitted brother Charley (Sam Rockwell). Late in the movie when someone accuses Bob of cowardice, he fires back, "You wanna investigate my courage? Do you? Find out!"
The triumph of the movie is that both Jesse James and Bob Ford are ultimately both portrayed as human beings. It should give us pause that our need for myth and legend is so great that we ennoble an outlaw and vilify the man who killed him.
All the details for the DVD containing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are listed below. Note that the DVD provides no supplementary materials.
Release Date: February 5, 2008
Feature Film Runtime: 2 hours 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Some Strong Violence and Brief Sexual References
Widescreen (2.35:1), Color
English 5.1 Dolby Surround
French 5.1 Dolby Surround
Spanish 5.1 Dolby Surround
English Captions for the Hearing Impaired