A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 23, 2017

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

Both the title and the film are overlong, but it's hard to see how either of them could have been trimmed. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a lingering, subtle meditation on the nature of celebrity set in an era long before the arrival of social media thrust celebrities like Donald Trump into our daily lives. Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck give memorable performances in their respective title roles -- Affleck received a supporting actor Oscar nomination, although his role is surely larger than Pitt's -- and they're well supported by Sam Shepard as Frank James, Mary-Louise Parker in the thankless role of Jesse's wife, Sam Rockwell as Robert Ford's brother Charley, and Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, and Paul Schneider as various ill-fated members of the James gang. There's also a cameo by former Bill Clinton adviser James Carville as the governor of Missouri who precipitates the assassination. It was only the second feature directed by New Zealander Andrew Dominik, who wrote the screenplay based on a novel by Ron Hansen. There's a bit too much lyric profundity in the screenplay, as in the voiceover by the narrator (Hugh Ross), who tells us about Jesse James: "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified." That's a hard description for any actor to live up to, but Pitt does a good job of it in perhaps the best performance of his career. Since the title pretty much gives the plot away, the film wisely concentrates on exploring the characters of James and Ford, who meet when the latter joins the James gang for a train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri. Ford has worshiped James since boyhood, and in one splendid scene James taunts and teases him into revealing the depths of his infatuation. Ford has memorized everything that could possibly link him to James: They both have brothers whose names contain six letters, for example. This is homoerotic hero-worship at its most intense -- and eventually, most deadly. The movie was filmed in Canada, with superb, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. The score is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Cave himself plays the saloon singer who taunts Ford with "The Ballad of Jesse James," which refers to "the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard" (James's pseudonym).