I felt in two minds about watching this film , half expecting it to be dolorous ,sombre, dull art-house exercise requiring resolute cinematic stamina . Not for the first time I was completely wrong .The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is as gorgeous and hypnotic a film as I have ever seen .
The title does of course give way what is going to happen in this film but the real drama comes from the way the narrative explores the relationship between the two men and how circumstances dictate what fates befall both of them.
When we meet them both its September 1881 and they are both preparing to rob a train as part of the infamous James gang . Most of the gang we are informed by the films lyrical voice over ( Hugh Ross)are either dead or in prison but the two remaining James brothers Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse(Brad Pitt) are leading the heist. Also part of the gang are the Ford brothers Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck) Robert has a fan worship thing going on with Jesse and this marks the start of their bond , though not before the more worldly wise Frank says of Bob Ford "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
It's a perspicacious comment as Bob is a bit creepy and is brilliantly portrayed by Affleck as such - ostensibly a sort of cowboy stalker. Jesse finds him amusing at first then comes to trust him before an all round paranoia and brooding malevolence takes over his character . These two borderline psycho's are well matched in many respects but the film adapted by director Andrew Dominick from the book by Robert Hansen takes its time in getting under the skin of these two characters so we understand implicitly how Ford comes to shooting Jesse James .This is complex and fully requires the lengthy running time in order to do it full justice.
Interestingly the film also explores Fords life post the shooting where he becomes a media celebrity in his own right yet is wracked by guilt and is thoroughly miserable.
The acting is top-notch throughout. Affleck as I alluded earlier is spookily good while Pitt is someone I often find irritating because he mumbles, but in this he's terrific- veering convincingly from wide eyed boyish enthusiasm to menacing glowers or explosive rage. Paul Schneider as gang member Dick Liddil a laconic poetry spouting lothario is especially good, though Mary Louise Parker as James wife Zee is given an underwritten role.
The real star of the film though is the cinematography of Roger Deakins, whose work with the Coen brothers has garnered plaudit's .He gives the film a sepia nostalgic glow but captures the landscape , vast fields of swaying corn or barren snow covered homesteads , magically. The landscapes become more frigid echoing the increasingly frosty relationship between the characters. The scene of a train robbery at night is one of transcendental and startling beauty. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is eerily spot on too.
Yes this film is slow but it's also thoroughly engrossing . It is truly insidiously compelling and though many will feel it's padded out , which is often my opinion of many films,I feel that not a frame is wasted in this movie. It truly is a masterpiece of the cinematic art -an all too rare commodity nowadays. Hugely commendable .
on 9 August 2011
The moment the soundtrack starts a spell is cast and the viewer is introduced to a "Southern loyalist" and "guerrilla in a civil war that never ended." Thus the viewer is immediately biased in favour of Brad Pitt's Jesse, plus the title attempts to set you against Robert Ford. It's quite amazing that without knowing a thing about Jesse James I always had this vague idea that he was a hero of America, a lion. But this film does not show how the myth was created and how it has endured. It depicts a pressure cooker that was, according to the screenwriter/director, the last months of Jesse's life.
Apart from the dreamy soundtrack it is the very strong acting that really hits you when you watch this. Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is just as masterful as Pitt's interpretation of Jesse James. Affleck is many things in his portrayal, creepy, sweet, pitiful, contemplative, stubborn and of course an obsessive. Pitt's performance too shifts and varies, from wildly sociable, to menacingly silent and confessional. At times Jesse is shown as a psychopath his eyes positively shining with evil or madness and at other times, he is totally charming. You almost don't notice the other supporting characters with Pitt and Affleck dominating affairs so much but they all compliment this artistic drama.
Jesse James is shown as one of the first ever celebrities, a relic of a more ferocious past known well beyond America by Europeans and proudly declaring that all of America holds him in high regard. Robert Ford is the crazed fan who stalks his idol relentlessly, his love and respect turning to jealousy and bitterness. The irony is that if Jesse treated Robert better none may have been as loyal as him but Jesse is well past his glory days and Robert realises he will never achieve fame through membership to the James Gang. Instant fame can only come through perfidy and bloody murder, a nobody is about to take out one of the most famous men alive. There are definite homoerotic undertones in the film, with Robert watching Jesse wash and Jesse admiring Robert's body as he rests on a bed. There are times when the characters seem to hypnotise each other and they stare deep into the other's eyes. There are prolonged silences and much of the dialogue lyrical. Jesse's murder becomes inevitable, he in fact encourages it and it is the only way Robert can consummate his love for the man he worships. The murder secures Jesse's place in the affections of the people and in history as he makes it appear that Robert was a coward for shooting him when he is not wearing his guns and is facing the other way. He becomes a fallen hero slain by one working for and paid reward money by the US authorities. Robert is not a coward but Jesse makes certain that he will become a hate figure; it is really Jesse James who kills Robert Ford.
This soulful movie offers much. It can be watched more than once easily especially because of the beauty of the cinematography and the locations used. Repeated viewings add further meaning to looks and words spoken by the characters. I think that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will stand the test of time. To describe this as great is too small a word, it is bigger than its sum of parts a bit like Robert Ford's view of Jesse James.
I can assure JI Robertson that I really do think this is a superb film: because 40 people walked out of the cinema he was in is as irrelevant to proving its weakness as the number of bums on seats at, say the Phantom Menace 'proving' that that was a good film.
It is not an action film; it is slow; it is primarily a character piece and therefore works against expectations of Westerns, but that doesn't mean it's not a great one. It actually addresses a central theme of the genre, one that has been explored in various ways for years, that of the clash between celebrity reputation and reality. Pitt's Jesse is capricious, brutal, unstable, murderous, disturbed. Ford's disappointed idolatry and a desire for some celebrity status of his own through killing him after his 'hero' rebuffs and insults him, is doomed. Ford is vilified by those who prefer the mythology about the outlaw. And there is certainly no pretence that Ford kills James as an expression of justice.
The performances of Pitt and Affleck are superb, particularly the latter's depiction of craven idolisation curdling into resentment, envy and desire for esteem, if not his hero's, then the public's, which, they determinedly refuse to give. The soundtrack is wonderful and the cinematography, by Roger Deakins who also DP'd No Country For Old Men, is broodingly beautiful. This really lingers in the memory. It amazes me that we can see all sorts of mediocrity replicated in hundreds of cinemas, but it's so hard to find this gem. Saw it for the first time a couple of weeks ago and desperate to see it again, but where?
'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' is the story of the last few months in the life of Jesse James, America's most notorious criminal back in the late 1800's who was wanted by the law in 10 states. He was also considered a hero, thought of as a Robin Hood by the public - stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Robert "Bobby" Ford, a 19 year old nobody who idolizes Jesse James, befriends the famous outlaw, joins his gang and gains his trust and confidence,before he eventually become his downfall.
There hasn't been many decent Westerns for ages, then two come along at once - 3:10 to Yuma and this. Although 'The Assassination of Jesse James...' isn't as action-packed and exciting as 3:10 to Yuma, I think that the characters, the dialogue and beautiful camerawork is much better. The story is extremely tense, moving at a slow pace to build up the tension, with some real shocks throughout. You know Jesse's fate from the moment you read the title of the movie but finding out how and why Robert Ford is a coward is the true mystery that unfolds over the 2 and a half hours.
Brad Pitt plays the infamous Jesse James very well and, in my opinion, this is one of the best performances I've seen him in for a long time, perhaps even out-doing his roles as Tyler Durden (Fight Club) and Jeffery Goines (12 Monkeys). The real star of the show for me was Casy Affleck with his fantastic performance as Robert Ford. The whole time from the moment you meet him until the closing scene he comes across as likeable yet couldn't trust him due to his mysteriousness and his obsession with James. The characters all work well together and are a real believeable cast.
Another thing that really impressed me with this movie is the truly remarkable camerawork with some of the most breathtaking scenery that I have seen in a film ever. From the dusty, dark woods to the snow cover mountains - there is never a scene where the background is nothing but beautiful.
This DVD edition also comes with a nicely packaged hardback booklet with some of the history and timelines from the Jesse James legend and some great photos from the movie. The special feature on the extra disc is a documentary called "Death of an Outlaw" which gives more facts on the life of Jesse James as well as some behind the scenes footage from the movie and interviews with the cast. Definitely worth the additional pound or two for this special edition.
Overall this is a fantastic movie that I will definitely be watching again soon. There's not a lot of bad points about it other than it can be a little slow at times, which may put off some viewers, but this is totally made up for by one of the best stories I've seen in ages. Well worth a watch and I highly recommend this DVD.
on 28 February 2008
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an elegy of futility, an exquisite scorched earth of a movie. Its themes creep up on you and seep into your bones. A tale of friendship and betrayal, it's also a portrait of rootlessness, of violent men who kill because they don't know what else men are supposed to do, and it has some of the grizzled, melancholic grandeur of Sam Peckinpah's Westerns. Yet there's nothing generic about this film, and nothing melodramatic either; it's closer to lyric realism. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) from a novel by Ron Hansen, the film is an epic poem, a primordial vision. With its dreamlike landscapes and its delicate piano and violin score, The Assassination of Jesse James owes a clear debt to the early films of Terence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven), and there are images here that are among the most beautiful and haunting I have ever seen in a movie. Yet the visuals are never made to compensate for a lack of story (as with Malick's later films), and they aren't hypnotic for their own sake. Dominik uses them sparingly, poetically, like a master painter. The film is almost three hours long, but it doesn't meander and it never seems indulgent. Dominik shows a loving attention to detail, a sense of the ebb and flow of his scenes, that is reminiscent of Coppola's first two Godfather films. Assassination isn't quite on that level (its characters aren't that rich or alive, and the story, though poignant, isn't full-blown tragedy), but how many films can be compared to The Godfather? I think it's the finest Western film since McCabe and Mrs. Miller (it has a similar delicate pathos and poetic intensity), and never mind the Oscars: it's easily the best film of 2007.
At first, Brad Pitt might seem somewhat lacking in the central role. Pitt is a problematic actor: when he has a role that allows him to get out of himself and let rip (such as Twelve Monkeys or Fight Club), he can be a riveting, electrifying presence; but like Jack Nicholson, he can also be lazy and coast on star appeal. He does a little of that here: his Jesse seems only partly rendered, a sketch, and as a result the film at times lacks for a stronger center. But Pitt's Jesse grows on you. This is an extremely tricky performance and in the end I think he pulls it off and does some of his best work. Pitt makes Jesse both menacing and oddly affecting, lost and almost childlike, a figure of pathos. And although we never really come to know him, there are moments when Pitt suggests that Jesse is an enigma even to himself. (When he talks about counting the stars, for example: a confederate says he isn't even sure what stars are, and Jesse replies, "Your body knows; your mind just forgot, that's all.")
There are plenty of performances to watch here: Jeremy Renner as Wood, Sam Shepard as Frank James, and especially Paul Schneider (from All the Real Girls), as Dick Liddil. Kailin See, as a sexually frustrated house-wife Dick allows to seduce him, gives the only outstanding female performance. (Despite her high billing, Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse's loving wife Zee, barely appears in the film except to look loving and to bemoan Jesse's death). And although he has a major role as Charlie Ford, the usually mesmerizing Sam Rockwell isn't given enough to do here. You'd never guess how talented he is from this role, but he's a welcome presence anyway.
The outstanding performance comes from Casey Affleck (Ben's younger brother), whose creepy Bob Ford is one of the most original characters ever created for the screen. From his first moments, Affleck puts us on guard: there's something not quite right about Bob, yet we can't put our finger on it. (By the end of the film we still don't know; Shepard's Frank states it for us, however, in the very first scene: "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.") Bob's worship of Jesse prefigures the slavish, faintly psychotic devotion of modern-day celebrity hounds like King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin; when Bob smiles, he sets his small teeth on edge and we can feel the hostility lurking inside him, waiting to come out. (It may be buried so deep even he is unaware of it.) In the end, the film is as much about Bob as it is about Jesse (who is never quite real to us), and maybe more so. The amorphous spell of melancholy which the film casts upon us comes as much from our feelings for Bob as for Jesse. Creepy as he is, we never hate Bob; by the end, we may feel almost unbearable pity for him.
It may be facile to say that The Assassination of Jesse James is about lost souls and false heroes; the film is so deftly, instinctively made, so light of touch, that it never pushes its meanings. But they are there, and the exquisite beauty of the film, the ghostlike images, the long silences, the open spaces it allows to exist both inside and between the scenes, combine to create a haunted, otherworldly quality, and a sense of unglimpsed depths. There's a moment, towards the end of the film, when the Ford brothers leave the James house where they are staying (and where Bob will assassinate Jesse), and we are allowed to see the surrounding countryside, and the skeletal town that is growing up in it. The image comes as a shock, because until now the intimacy of the film has kept our focus closely bound to the characters; despite its epic scope, there seemed no need to recreate the greater world in which they exist (or for the film's budget to include such elaborate sets). The image is all the more breathtaking for coming so unexpected, and we may be struck by how much care has gone into creating this world, seemingly for its own sake, independent of the story. At such a late stage, letting us see the fruit of this work seems almost an afterthought. Dominik may be so intensely inside his vision that he is indifferent to whether or not we experience it--the process of creation is enough. He has the focus and immersion of a true alchemist.
This is an almost perfect film (the ungainly title and the absence of women characters notwithstanding; even Nick Cave's improbable cameo is forgivable--he co-wrote the gorgeous score with Warren Ellis). Yet it's an elusive work, and definitely not for everyone. A lot of people will miss its ineffable, alchemical grace, and mistake it for a rather long, lugubrious Western. Like Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dominik is not interested in genre conventions, not even enough to subvert them. He's inventing a whole new genre in order for this one work to be exactly what it needs to be. (There's very little action in the film, yet it's full of suspense; and the occasional violence is never what we expect, it's never not disturbing.) At times, the effects Dominik gets are so unique, so inspired, that they seem faintly mysterious. He's a major, major talent. The Assassination of Jesse James is both an epic about the process by which legends are made and a tender, intimate love story between two antagonists so utterly dissimilar they might come from two different worlds. Yet they do have one thing in common: both men are so lost to themselves that at times the film seems almost like a ghost story. In a way, that's what it is.