Review of the Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford written and directed by Andrew Dominik ****
This was a slow but interesting film. It is a character study. It is not a story about the exploits of Jesse James. If you’re looking for a film with lots of shooting and gun slinging, this ain’t it. And that’s why I liked it.
Brad Pit does a fine job of portraying the paranoid and conflicted Jesse James. Cassey Affleck does an even better job portraying the introverted Robert Ford, though he does have a tendency to mumble his dialog. What he lacks in articulation he makes up for with his physical manifestations.
The film uses a narrator to help tell the story. A lot of people are against narrators, but I think they add another layer. In a true account like this, the narrator adds authenticity to the story. The narration is intertwined throughout the story and is usually preceded by an out of focus shot, as if you’re looking back in time. It’s an effective technique. The combination of the narrator and the live action gives the film a docudrama feel.
The story told here is about Jesse James’s growing paranoia and the idolization of the man by Robert Ford. Jesse is constantly in fear of his pursuers. He moves frequently. He changes gang members. He questions the path his life has taken. Robert Ford wants what he believes Jesse James has: respect, notoriety, and fame.
The movie is based on a book. I have not read the book, but I’m guessing that the book had more to do with Robert Ford than Jesse James. While the story of Jesse James’ downfall is an interesting one, I found the story of what happened after that act even more compelling.
When Robert Ford does gain the notoriety he had been seeking, it is not what he expected. He shot Jesse James in the back, only because he was afraid for his own life. His brother, who was with him at the time of Jesse James’ death, commits suicide over his guilt for not only the killing but because of his exploitation of the killing. Robert Ford also meets an unexpected end.
There is some great cinematography. The film probably could have lost twenty or thirty minutes. The DVD did not have any extras. Note to filmmakers: When you dramatize a true story always say something about the real people.
The family of Jesse James have posted their own 5 page review of this movie on their family web site, together with stories about the James family’s former experiences with Hollywood and Jesse James movies.