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Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

October 16, 2007

Apparently this film, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, was put out into limited release this last week. I had heard the title before (it’s not a title you’re likely to forget) and it’s been getting raves on Rotten Tomatoes. So, having little else to do late Sunday, Ryan and I trotted out to the local theatre for a showing.

Let me put this out there first: I don’t like biopics, as a rule. Life is messy, and biopics by their nature are, therefore, also messy. Things don’t get tied up in a little bow with much frequency, and maybe it’s the nihilist in me (or in the biopic filmmakers), but usually I come out of a biopic less sure of why I should care about the person’s life than when I went in. I’m one of the few people I know who positively loathed The Aviator, just in the sense that it didn’t GO anywhere. The guy got richer and crazier and the movie ended with him filthy rich and hygiene-crazy. Very skillful filmmaking, sure, but I’d rather talk about the implications of the film towards the human experience, than the two-strip color timing effect used in the first half.

But I digress. This is a review of The Assassination of Yada-Yada. I’m not sure that Assassination necessarily counts as a “biopic” in the strictest sense, but it details the important sections of the lives of its two eponymous characters, and it also suffers from the usual problems that a biopic suffers. It details the decline of these two men, and doesn’t really seem to have anything to say ABOUT it other than the fact that it happened.

I was always taught in English class not to summarize, but to analyse, but as a review for people who haven’t seen the film, some summary is first in order. There will be spoilers (although given that the climax is in the title, I hardly think they’re significant):

The James gang (Jesse, and his older brother Frank) are pulling the final heist of their careers. Most of the original “gang” is dead or imprisoned, so the Brothers James have hired some of the local hillbillies to help them pull of their heist. Among them is another pair of brothers, Charlie and Robert Ford. Our introduction to Charlie is his attempt to approach Frank, asking him to take him on as a kind of protege in the glamorous world of banditry. Frank doesn’t like the kid, tells him so, and that’s the end of that.

They pull off the train heist and everyone goes their separate ways. Robert stays with Jesse for a brief while, helping him move his family under cover of night to a town where his crimes will be unlikely to catch him. It becomes evident that Robert idolizes Jesse, and has grown up on a diet of Jesse James pulp novels and urban legends. We’ve all known that kid who lacks social skills in general, and kind of creeps everybody out; Robert Ford is that kid, and working with Jesse James he is just about working with his own personal Jesus Christ. To his dismay, Jesse does not return the adoration. In fact he really loathes Robert, and the attention Robert gives him, and actively seeks to hurt Robert emotionally by ridiculing his obsession with The Jesse James just about every time he’s within earshot.

Steadily disillusioned with his hero, Robert eventually turns on him, deciding to hand him over to the police for the big reward. The stakes in this decision are raised and established by several scenes in which Jesse roots out treachery within the band of compatriots who helped with the job, and one by one takes them down before they can take him down. Apparently there’s a guy named Sam Cummings (I think that’s what it was) who is Jesse’s nemesis; several of the people he kills he first accuses of being in cahoots with Cummings, and he beats a young boy mercilessly for the crime of being related to Cummings.

These and other scenes are also used to establish that the cheese is starting to slide off Jesse’s cracker. There are a number of scenes where he almost kills Robert Ford “in jest”. He’s depressed, paranoid, and frightened of himself (and for a man who’s killed as many as Jesse claims to, that’s pretty frightening to the people around him). By the time Jesse and Robert are alone together (well, Charlie is in the room), the man is really having a problem. Jesse knows Robert has turned on him, Robert knows Jesse is going to kill him. Yet Jesse takes off his gun belts, proclaims “that picture’s awful dusty” about a picture without a speck of dust on it, and proceeds to clean the picture with his back to the Ford brothers. Robert takes the opportunity and kills Jesse.

He triumphantly announces it to the world, is paid well for it, and somewhat inexplicably his act becomes branded as an act of betrayal and cowardice. People write songs about how great Jesse was and how shitty Ford’s actions were (in Ford’s presence). Charlie Ford kills himself, unable to bear the burden of his betrayal, and Robert Ford’s life is taken by a half-crazed vigilante who blows his head off with a shotgun in retribution. The end.

Now, if you’re like me, your reaction to the third act is summarized by three letters: WTF.

Part of the problem, almost certainly, is that I know absolutely nothing of the historical or legendary elements that make up the story of Jesse James. My assumption is that Robert Ford has spent the last century or so being vilified as a coward and a traitor, and that the movie’s intention was to show how Ford acted in a way that any of us would have done in the same situation, and indeed, seemed to be acting in accordance with Jesse James’ own wishes. Jesse establishes early on that he “never takes off his gunbelts”; it’s that explicit. The man cocks a gun in his sleep when he hears stirring in the bed next to him. He wanted Ford to take the opportunity, and made it as open as possible.

So, I guess the idea is that we know this story of the Great Jesse James and how he was betrayed and murdered, and we see the truth behind it, we experience Robert Ford’s disillusionment with him, and when the time comes, we understand and have discovered a new perspective on the old legend.

The problem is, again, I didn’t know the story of the Great Jesse James, and so besides the creepy stalker vibe he gives off, Robert Ford’s actions seem like exactly what any sensible person would do. There’s no real conflict there, and the behavior of the rest of the world when they hear about Jesse’s death is, as I said above, rather inexplicable.

The Old West just isn’t the romantic obsession it used to be. I really doubt that most people of my generation could tell you about Jesse James, or Davy Crockett (beyond his theme song and racoon hat), at the length that kids from previous generations could. Outlaws aren’t the zeitgeist anymore, so it’s difficult to look back and understand the way that an outlaw like Jesse James captured peoples’ imaginations. It’s hard to understand why people hated Robert Ford so much, and why even he is said, at one point after the assassination, to “miss the man [Jesse]”. WHAT?! He killed more than a dozen people, was going to kill you, and did nothing but make the people around him live in fear.

What is really meant by that line, I think, is that he misses the LEGEND of the man. I think where the movie could have been improved — or at least, the experience could have been improved for people like me — would be to take the opportunity to briefly show the importance of Jesse James to the common folk. What he meant to them, and why. We see that Robert is obsessed with him, and that his obsession is fueled by dimestore paperbacks he’s been reading all his life, but I would have liked to understand what the legend is, how much the world loves him. Is he their Robin Hood? Then show me that, and THEN dive with Robert Ford into the ugly, crushing reality of what your idol is probably really like.

Now, I said a lot about the central problems I had with the film. When I walked out, I really didn’t know why I’d spent two hours and forty minutes watching what I did. But there are a lot of good things to be said from a filmmaking standpoint as well.

The performances are phenomenal. The world is utterly immersive and you really get an unromanticized Old West. Brad Pitt is good, although when Jesse starts to get really unhinged I saw a bit too much Tyler Durden in his mad laughter, and it distracted me and pulled me out of the movie. Casey Affleck does a great job as the creepy stalker-ish fanboy of Jesse James (unless Affleck is, in fact, creepy and stalker-ish; I prefer to think it’s a performance), and Sam Rockwell is brilliant. He’s great at comedy, great at drama, and probably doesn’t get as much credit as he ought to for that.

The dialogue is well-written for the most part, generally not too on the nose and very evocative of that time. It’s the kind of writing where you hear it and go “Man, I would never have thought to use that archaic term, but that’s EXACTLY what they would have said back then.” Good stuff.

The directing is quite something, if a little uneven. The sequence where they rob the train has a surreality to it that makes some of the shots look literally like moving paintings, without any kind of overt digital tweaking that gives movies like 300 the same effect.

The movie is very still, for the most part. There is some great work in building tension when someone is lying to Jesse and he’s rooting it out. The camera will hold on them…and hold…and keep holding, way longer than you feel it ought to, and you see the characters’ discomfort by being held accountable under the unblinking eye, you watch them fidget and struggle with their composure. We feel the discomfort too, we feel like it REALLY OUGHT TO CUT but it just doesn’t. Through the camera we become Jesse, staring them down. We see what he sees, we root out the lying as he does from their glances and fidgets, and there are some moments of truth in the awkwardness, for the actors and for the audience, that a lot of films these days wouldn’t get to.

Would I recommend the movie? Academically, I think so. I think this is a film that’s a slow burn. It’s not going to be the cause of a major upheaval in cinema, but there’s a lot going on, a lot of craft at work in front of and behind the camera. As a piece of entertainment, no, I don’t think this is one to watch. It’s one to study, instead.

One Comment
  1. deepstructure permalink

    i actually was surprised i liked the film. i’d heard of it’s length and slow pace and was a bit trepidatious going in. but it ended up being quite an enlightening experience for me.

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