Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a long title that explains much of what you need to know about the movie (*********9/10)

It was the mother of Jesse James, in real life, who would select the words for his epitaph. "In Loving Memory of my Beloved Son, Murdered by a Traitor and Coward Whose Name is not Worthy to Appear Here". The new movie, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, feels that Robert Ford's name IS worthy to appear in their title alongside that of James. That the two men were equally important parts to the same story. It's a story that has been told many times, in books, music, and of course movies. Jesse James has been played by Tyrone Power, Red Barry, Roy Rogers, Clayton Moore, Audie Murphy, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson and Rob Lowe. Among others. The worst portrayal of James was Colin Farrell's in American Outlaws - mostly because that movie was so very very terrible. The best may well be Brad Pitt in this film. Whose title I won't keep typing for fear of developing carpal tunnel syndrome.

But Brad Pitt is outdone considerably in this movie by Casey Affleck. Yes, Casey Affleck, the kid brother of Ben, who has never appeared in any significant role in his life and yet all of a sudden finds himself in two of the biggest roles in two of the best movies of the year! And he is good. In both - it isn't just his brother's direction that makes him great, he is just legitimately an excellent actor. Robert Ford has been played by John Carradine, whose four sons became actors. Son David was later killed by Uma Thurman. He has also been played by John Ireland, and some guy on an episode of Little House on the Prairie. But the best protrayal is without a doubt Affleck's in this movie, and he richly deserved his Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor. Although Brad Pitt is a Movie Star, and his public persona dwarfs his talent, people forget that he is an outstanding actor. Outdoing him in a movie is a considerable achievement.

Pitt at his very best reminds me a little of Paul Newman, and watching this movie reminded me of Paul Newman's portrayal of Billy The Kid in The Left-Handed Gun (1958). He's an outlaw on the edge of sanity, paranoid and almost childish in his outlook. He seems to be the kind of guy who has reached the end of his rope, and almost welcomes his own death. Death is his deliverance, and I think the title of the movie makes it pretty clear it happens, and as such this is not much of a spoiler. Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Mary-Louise Parker, and Sam Shephard are all excellent in supporting roles, and James Carville makes a bizarre appearance as the governor. Nick Cave shows up as a saloon singer, and Hugh Ross lends just the right tone to keep the story moving as the narrator.

Jesse James, in his day, was about the most famous person in America, outside the president, because his exploits were followed in the papers. He was a celebrity simply because he was someone that people had heard of, and there were not many of those around at the time. Even at the time, he was considered a hero in the west, because the papers protrayed him as an anti-establishment fighter on the side of good. But of course, he was really just a bandit and a murderer who happened to get good press. Che Guevara he was not. This movie captures the tone perfectly, Robert Ford being an idol-worshipping sycophant to James and his gang at first. He has been a die-hard Jesse James fan since he was a small boy, and now that he comes face to face with the reality of the outlaw, he becomes completely torn between his hero-worship and his desire for self-preservation. And the film has a surprisingly un-dramatic conclusion, given the subject matter contained so succinctly in the title. Like the best westerns of all time (and this is among the top 200 ever made) death is just something that happens as a natural course of living, whether it be because of the elements, sickness, or at the hand of other men.

Westerns have gone through many ups and downs in movie history. John Ford's Stagecoach, in 1939, was the first movie to suggest that westerns could be real feature films, A-list movies, rather than continuing as it was in B-movie, black-and-white serials and the like. That was the golden age of the western, when John Wayne and John Ford were kings, Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart were major stars, and films like The Searchers, High Noon, Shane, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were among some of the best ever made. There was a big resurgence in the western genre during the 70s, when the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood breathed some life back into the genre. Then it died again, until the 90s, when Unforgiven in 1992 became one of the greatest movies of all time, and quite possibly the best western. This resurgence led mostly to B-grade fluff, like Bad Girls and The Quick And The Dead, and nothing of substance. I sincerely hope now that films like 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford mark a more substantial return to significance in the history of the western, and that more movies like this one can be made. But even if not, the fact that this particular movie was made is reason enough to be happy.


  1. Totally agree that this was an outstanding film. And you didn't even mention things like the breathtaking cinematography and the strangely delicate score that both emphasized and added pathos to the brutality of the subject matter and the lifestyles of the characters.

    I have to say something about Brad Pitt though. I'm a fan of his and have been for a long time. But I'm much less impressed by his work lately than I used to be. I'm not sure if it's because I overestimated his ability, or because his public persona has made it impossible for him to disappear into his roles. He's become one of those actors who seems to play the same character in every film. The same gestures, the same way of expressing emotions, the same walk, facial expressions, etc.

    That Casey Affleck though. Absolutely brilliant. Creepy and sympathetic at the same time. Now THERE's an actor who can disappear into a role.

    At least for now.

  2. Haven't seen the movie, but when I was a kid, I borrowed the book from the BookMobile and never returned it.
    This has haunted me for many years.

  3. All of those things are true as well. The cinematography, sadly, I was unable to truly appreciate, because my big fancy brand-new TV was in the shop, and I was forced to watch this on a 12-inch TV that I could barely see across the living room. I sat cross-legged in front of it for the two-and-half hour running time like a small child watching Mr. Dressup. I think for some time Pitt's publicity has made it difficult for him. It's tough not to look at the screen and see Brad Pitt, movie star. This has been happening ever since 12 Monkeys. When Terry Gilliam made 12 Monkeys, he wanted to cast the entire thing with unknown actors. Bruce Willis demanded to be involved, because he loved the concept, and you don't say no to Bruce Willis. And Brad Pitt was cast in the film before he became the Big Movie Star, yet the film was released after he became the Big Movie Star, and it suffered a bit. I found that in this movie I could actually forget it was Brad Pitt, until my girlfriend came home halfway through and said "oh hey, that's Brad Pitt". It took me a while to get back into it.