The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Built Ford Tough

[Originally Published: East County Herald]

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt

By Robert Patrick

One thing is clear to me about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (aside from the name being far too many characters long) and that is that if you have the end of the movie in your title, it better have something else going for it. However that may be, I’m sure most people know that Jesse James was killed by the meek, creepy Robert Ford. Most people in the late 1800’s knew that anyway, and if people today aren’t aware, now they are (and it saves you from reading a long synopsis of what this movie is about).
Director Andrew Dominik’s film version of the outlaw’s life isn’t so much about his wild, daring days as much as his later, more depressing ones. While for most, watching a movie about Jesse James not doing anything Jesse James is notorious for may have some scratching their heads. The film, though, is actually kinetic with a powerful kind of energy.

Early on we are introduced to James (Brad Pitt) and his rag-tag group of outlaws during their final train robbery. After the anti-climatic attempt, the gang decides to hang up their spurs once and for all. Fortunately for us, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and his brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) appear in time to ruffle James’ feathers and get him back in action. Robert Ford makes it known during the first twenty minutes of meeting James that he is obsessed with the villainous gunslinger and latches onto him with unsettling haste.

This is where it all goes wrong for the former train robber and psychopathic killer (empathy for a person with such traits is not a stretch here though) as Ford plays a cat and mouse game with James. Is Ford really James’ friend? Does James really have good intentions for the young Ford? It’s an ongoing carousel of paranoid stipulations, violent outbursts and dark conversations (both in tone and physical setting).
Nevertheless, this may be the best revival attempt yet at the western genre. The cinematography is amazing, the score has so much character it practically becomes one, and the acting is top notch.
The most surprising mention of this film is that of Casey Affleck’s acting. Casey, the brother of the other, more disliked Affleck, is astounding in his turn as the young, troubled Ford. Even Sam Rockwell plays his part to the best of his abilities and is convincing as Ford’s good natured, yet ill-fated brother Charley.

“The Assassination of Jesse James” excels in virtually every area save for Brad Pitt’s vacuous portrayal of the outlaw himself. Dominik’s script simply removes the mythological stigma surrounding Jesse James, while Brad Pitt unintentionally sheds any relatable human qualities James may have had himself.
All in all, the movie is an incredible accomplishment and worthy of a ticket.

4/5 Stars

Author: Rob Patrick

The program director of the Olympia Film Society, Rob is also a former San Diego Film Critics Society member. He has written for The East County Californian, The Alpine Sun, The East County Herald, The San Diego Entertainer, and the San Diego Reader. When he isn't curating a film festival, he is drinking rosé out of a plastic cup in Seattle or getting tattoos from Jenn Champion.

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