Monday, February 18, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

My first thoughts upon seeing this film were: (1) The cinematography is just brilliant, making it almost a shadowy black-and-white film, and (2) Damn, this film is long!

At 160 minutes, "Jesse James" could have been cut judiciously and still have made its points. Make that "drastically." If the extra footage had accomplished a deeper study in character, we could have forgiven its sloth-like, day-in-the-life approach. But, instead, we're treated to dramatic scenes of Jesse staring down (fill in the blank with any character's name).

In truth, this portrayal does a good job of showing Jesse James later in his life (well, as old as he got, 34), seemingly at his most eccentric and paranoid. He was already a legend in the midwest, having killed 17 men. Some for purpose, some for preemptive strikes, none for, it seemed, sport. Along comes Robert Ford, and, through his brother, Charley, joins the gang. Nineteen-year-old Bob grew up reading about the exploits of Jesse James, painted as a hero in the nickel novels, and he, too, wants to make a name for himself.

However, in close-up affiliation, Bob begins to dislike and then resent the killer, and plots a way to make himself famous while betraying his once-hero.

This is a story not only of friendship, trust and betrayal, but of a celebrity and the problems it can bring. It's an all-too-familiar stalking story in modern day: young man worships an icon, comes to see him as human, and is bent upon destroying what was once a hero to him. The fact that this story takes place one hundred years ago is intriguing.

James is definitely a cold killer, and the setting for a lot of his kills is the lonely plains, often blanketed with snow, and the way it's photographed gives it a loneliness and coldness that's truly extraordinary. While we see a lot of Jesse, played by Brad Pitt, the story is clearly about Ford (actor Casey Affleck) and his equally cold plan to lay Jesse in his grave.

Unfortunately, it takes forever to get to the moment where Ford makes his move. The most interesting part of the movie occurs in the last half hour, when Ford discovers how the world will receive this information, the fact that Ford killed Jesse James. He expected applause, he tells his stripper girlfriend. Instead, the world branded Ford as a coward, as noted in the famous song.

There's a lot to recommend about the film if you can spare a chunk of your life for the film. The cinematography, photographic shots, settings and costumes are incredible art on film. The acting is superb. And Casey Affleck deservedly is up for a Best Supporting Actor for this film. It's actually hard for me to choose between this performance versus the one in Gone Baby Gone.

Thumb's up.


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