MOVIE: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Many, many years ago, I read the novel on which this movie is based. I’d picked it up at a bookstore one day because the title had given me a chuckle. Not the part of the title in which it is told to us that it’s about Jesse James getting assassinated (a couple of weeks ago, by the way, a friend of mine asked me what this movie was “about,” and I was all, “Um, did you just ask me what a movie entitled ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ was ABOUT?”). But instead the whole title itself, which is so reminiscent of those old — oh hell, what are those things called? Not dime novels, which came later, but the little books they used to write about Western heroes back in the 1800’s? The ones about the Earps, Doc Holliday, and, of course, Jesse James.

It’s been years now since I read Hansen’s novel, and though I remember really enjoying it, I don’t remember anything else about it. When I heard it was being made into a movie with Brad Pitt as Jesse and Sam Shepard as his brother Frank, though, my reaction was one of unbridled glee. First of all, we need more Westerns. And second, Brad may be just ridiculously gorgeous, but he is also, without a doubt, a truly talented actor with an extremely wide range. I could see Brad doing James pretty easily. And what’s more, I really WANTED to see Brad doing James.

Unfortunately, as a film, I have to say this one fell a bit flat for me. Part of the problem with this movie is that it tries to get too arty for its own good. I started out loving the gorgeous scenery — the pause when the train comes around and you see its lights glowing through the trees, the sweeping prairie shots, etc. But once it started moving towards (and then past) the 120 minute mark, I confess I got a bit impatient. Westerns are often full of rambling slow moments of sweeping scenery — consider the ubiquitous tumbleweed shot — it’s one of their trademarks, really. But in a GOOD Western, the scenery should feel more like an extension of the cowboy himself, rather than an attempt on the part of the director to win an award for cinematography. Here, it just felt too heavy-handedly like the latter. To me, anyway.

And as for Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, he takes a quintessential American hero/anti-hero and turns him into. . . yaaaaawn, I’m sorry, were you saying something? I nodded off there for a second.

Know what I mean?

I appreciated that, for once, a movie about Jesse James made the attempt to demonstrate that he was, in fact, a really bad guy (compare to, for example, unBoyfriend Colin Farrell’s James in American Outlaws). Pitt’s James is clearly violent, lugging around some pretty intense mental and emotional demons (take the scene in the barn with the kid, for example). But his attempt to do “troubled and intense” mostly seemed to involve sitting around looking stony-faced, and it just didn’t do much for me, I’m afraid.

Casey Affleck, on the other hand, is just plain genius as Robert Ford. About twenty minutes into this film, it occurred to me that what I was watching was actually Single White Female with dudes on horseback — it really is the same story. It’s the tale of a young man totally infatuated with the person he thinks lives the perfect, most ideal life imaginable. Infatuated to the point of obsession. But it’s not that Bob wants to be partners with Jesse James, or even to earn his respect, really. It’s that he wants to BE Jesse James. The more he comes to realize the only person who can be Jesse James is Jesse James, the more he starts to turn ye olde stalker message of “If I can’t have you, nobody can” into “If I can’t BE you, nobody can.” And it’s all kinda downhill from there for both parties.

As with Gone Baby Gone, Affleck brings an truly fascinating balance of innocence and toughness to his part. Even knowing, as we all do from the title, that Bob is going to kill his childhood hero by the end of the movie, we can’t help but feel sorry from him from the moment he enters the screen. He’s a sad, pathetic little wannabe, desperate to be taken seriously. But he doesn’t have the intelligence and strength to actually obtain greatness. So, he does what so many pathetic little wannabes do to try to become famous — he assassinates someone bigger than he is. And down in history he goes.

The last thirty minutes or so of this movie, focusing purely on the two Ford brothers (Bob’s brother Charley is played by Sam Rockwell, by the way), is one of the best parts of the entire film, in my opinion. It follows Bob and Charley’s respective regrets and downfalls as they first try to capitalize on the murder by turning it into a stage play, thinking they’ll be heroes for having brought down one of the notorious bandits ever, and finally realize they are even less respected than ever before (didn’t help, of course, that Bob shot Jesse in the back). This was a part of the story we don’t often see, and it was a part I found both intriguing and moving.

In any case, despite my minor complaints, I think this is a movie well worth seeing. I think it could’ve benefitted from stronger editing and better pacing, though. And, sorry to say it, someone other than Pitt in the title role. Nevertheless, Western fans will find much to enjoy here, and so will anyone interested in the history of an American legend.

(By the way, best version of that Jesse James song at the end of the film in the bar? The one by The Pogues.)

[Netflix me | Buy me]

Genre: Western
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Mary Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Jeremy Renner

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8 Responses to “MOVIE: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)”

  1. Liz Says:

    I was very impressed with this movie, and felt that Casey Affleck really did stellar work – and was the star of the movie. But, although I’ve never been a big fan of Brad Pitt, I respected his work as well. I got the impression that he was almost the supporting player, and deferred to Affleck, while at the same time creating a very interesting portrayal of Jesse James.

    I also thought the brother, Charley, played by Sam Rockwell, was very effective, and under-appreciated. I think I read somewhere that Garett Dillahunt was supposed to play the brother, but that his TV responsibilities (“Sarah Connor Chronicles?”) made him take a smaller role – the guy who shot Robert Ford? The pacing was slow, but I thought it was interesting, and in keeping with what seemed to be more of a character study than an adventure story. I also liked the use of that song about Jesse James; I even have it in a book of traditional American songs!

    Meg, I think your description of Bob’s “stalker mentality” was spot on. And you could almost see it happening to him. One could almost feel sorry for him – if he wasn’t such a whiney little turd!

    One thing – did you notice how Jesse saw Ford pull the gun on him in the reflection of the picture he was purporting to dust? Was the movie trying to suggest that he was just waiting for Ford to kill him??

  2. megwood Says:

    Yeah, that last bit about Jesse seeing the gun’s reflection — that’s a very classic Western-hero type moment. And yes, I think we are supposed to believe that Jesse was willing to let Bob shoot him — for a variety of reasons. Bob may have idealized Jesse’s life, but the movie did a good job of making it obvious that it was a hard one and one he was weary of himself. That’s why he couldn’t take Ford’s admiration of him seriously. It’s like when a 10 year old says he can’t wait to grow up — we grown-ups know being an adult’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

    I agree that Affleck was much more the star of the movie than Pitt, by the way. And also that Rockwell was under-appreciated. I do that myself with him, actually, because a lot of the movies I’ve seen him in are ones in which he plays a total goofball (Zaphod Beeblebrox, anyone?). And I thought that actually worked really well for this film, because it makes what happens to Charley Ford at the end all the more disturbing.

    Very interesting movie! Now, more Westerns, Hollywood!

  3. Trip Says:

    I’ve been trying for a couple of days now to formulate a strong opinion about this movie, but surprisingly, I can’t do it. It was just OK.

    I did like the artsy train-light-through-the-trees cinematography and appreciated the close conformity to actual history, but other than that…yeah it was just all right.

    I had a “been there, done that” feeling with Brad Pitt as Jesse James…seemed like his performance was one part Kalifornia, one part Fight Club, and one part A River Runs Through It.

    I did like the last half-hour…Charley’s gradual disgust with Bob on stage was well done, and Bob’s realization that his fantasy was way better than the reality and how empty his life had become as a result…complete with the wintry background…effective.

    The character that stood out the most for me? Dick Liddel. I thought his scenes as the poetic, yet unrefined skirt chaser were the most interesting.

    Zaphod and Trillian were *both* in this one…coincidence?

  4. megwood Says:

    Yeah, seriously — what was with the Hitchhiker’s Guide reunion?

    I think your description of Pitt’s performance is spot-on, Trip. That was exactly how I felt about it too.

  5. Liz Says:

    I have to comment again (sorry). Your description of Pitt’s performance as “been there, done that” was, to me, exactly appropriate to the character. Wasn’t that kind of how James was feeling? And if so, then didn’t Pitt capture it just right? I can’t believe I’m defending Brad Pitt!

    Anyway, I thought the movie was great, and I didn’t mind the slowness, because, as I said, it gave more time to appreciate the characters. But who the heck are Zaphod and Trillian? You can tell I haven’t read or seen “Hitchhiker’s Guide…”

  6. megwood Says:

    Zaphod and Trillian in the 2005 movie version of Hitchhiker’s were played by Sam Rockwell and Zooey Deschanel, who were both in this movie too. How can you not have read the “Hitchhiker’s Guide” trilogy (of five) though? Dude, get on that STAT! It’s hilarious awesomeness!

  7. Liz Says:

    Hey, cut me some slack! I’M SLOW! I’m only into my second Terry Pratchett “Discworld” book (talk about hilarious! “Cohen the Barbarian!”), and he wrote those in the ’80’s! Maybe Netflix will help me catch up. At least I saw this movie, and “No Country” before you did! (And “Sweeney Todd,” for that matter, but we know what a “Todd-o-phile” I’ve become!)

  8. DRTR Says:

    HOW CUTE ARE YOU

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