The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007
By Doug Nayler
This film is going to make for millions of unhappy teenage girls. Despite featuring the couldn’t-be-more-ubiquitous chiseled good looks of Brad Pitt, Jesse James is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a mainstream film. Unlike this month’s other big western release 3:10 to Yuma, this film has more in common with out-there westerns like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller than it does shoot ‘em-ups like Silverado. It’s such a heady, meditative, and uncommercial film that I can only assume any viewer will either consider it pure genius or hopeless pretension. I myself am still undecided.
The film opens with Jesse James’s glory days already past. His well-known gang is gone; his fires of rebellion and excitement are mostly curbed. Living under the name Thomas Howard, he pulls the odd heist while raising his family. Jesse has become taciturn and unpredictable. His brother Frank (Sam Shepard) is fed up and decides to part ways with his brother. Nobody, including himself, knows what to do with Jesse anymore. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who has worshiped Jesse since childhood, becomes part of a gang of men that Jesse robs a train with. As Bob discovers what Jesse has become, he grows resentful that the man doesn’t live up to the legend, and starts to fashion his new destiny: becoming famous for being the man who shot Jesse James. The problem is, Bob can’t manage to hate the man enough to kill him. Much like Jesse, Bob finds himself in a state of indecision.
The main cast’s performances are consistently superb. Although the film is peppered with his patented smirk, Affleck skillfully embodies the character of Bob Ford and his mixture of worship, admiration, disappointment and hatred for his boyhood hero. The supporting cast is just as impressive. Though some may find the film’s many digressions into the lives of the secondary characters frustrating and unnecessary, I enjoyed spending time with these interesting characters; Sam Rockwell, Garret Dillahunt (Deadwood), and Paul Schneider all add depth.
The plot unfortunately gets lost brooding in the intricacies and paradoxes of the characters’ minds and lives; 40 minutes could be cut and not be missed. Making a film about a lack of direction can lead to a directionless film, and though this film is not entirely without direction, it certainly requires a commitment from its audience, and its ambivalent, unresolved tone is sure to frustrate a lot of viewers… especially the younger generation of Brad Pitt fans, who are probably not looking for an existential experience.