“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a beautifully filmed historical thriller. If you like good looking films, history, and tense thriller, you will love this movie. Like its title, though, this film is too long. The unnecessary length is made worse by narration that gives fills us in on the nuances of the characters and the story. Narration ordinarily speeds along story but not when the oratory is interspersed with long shots of staring actors. Four years after its release, the film is not getting any shorter, so the length is just something that those who love beautiful films are going to have to put up with.
The heart of this movie is Casey Affleck’s unsettling performance as Robert Ford. Despite Ford’s earnest nature, people lose their smiles when he enters a room. Watching his Robert Ford reminds me of an awkward job interview or being at a party in the quiet group while a group across the room is laughing uproariously. Affleck’s Robert Ford knows he is unlikeable and not well thought of, but he nevertheless feels that he is meant for greater things.What makes Casey Affleck’s performance so remarkable is that he shows us why no one likes Robert Ford, while at the same time getting us to like the little bastard. He is the Rudy of outlaws.
The performances may be imaginary, but like any good historical drama, we know how “The Assassination of Jesse James” ends. At least anyone who knows spit about American history knows how the story of Jesse James ends. For those who need a refresher course, the title of the movie and the prologue spell out for us the penultimate event of the movie, the part where James Ford shoots and kills Jesse James. Yet, despite all this foreknowledge, the titular act is just as tense as in any thriller and maybe more so.
Again, Casey Affleck shines, er quivers, as a very vulnerable and human Robert Ford against the larger than life specter of doom that is Jesse James. We know he will shoot Jesse James just as surely as we know the ship will sink in “Titanic“. James Ford does not know this has fear and discomfort radiates into you. His partner in this tense affair is the accomplished Sam Rockwell, who transports his unease from the screen directly into our bellies. To round off the perfect casting, the biggest name on this movie is Brad Pitt as the gregarious and melancholy Jesse James. This gives us a real life parallel of not so well known Affleck and Rockwell as the underdogs against the extremely popular Brad Pitt. The casting is just brilliant. We know James Ford bested Jesse James but can we imagine Ben Affleck’s little brother and the red shirt from “Galaxy Quest” beating Achilles and the embodiment of death? Not really, and thus the suspense.
As much buildup as there is toward the death of Jesse James, the tail of the film devotes a good (and by that I mean a very watchable) half hour to the life of James Ford after the act. We see that unbearably annoying sycophant grow into a brooding adult, one who’s happiness and social status are constantly assaulted by a country that reviles him for killing Jesse James. Though a criminal and mass murderer in life, Jesse James becomes something of a saint in the minds of the American people after his death. Robert Ford, who muses on how Jesse James’s victims might feel about the outlaw’s death, is a pariah. And the man who killed the man who killed Jess James is seen as a hero. Although not mentioned in the film, Jesse James’s murderous brother Frank turned himself in and was acquitted of all his crimes, i.e. the multiple murders of innocent people. If ever you thought American sensibilities have degraded in our modern century need only see this film to remind yourself that we are so much better than those murder loving simpletons of the late 19th century.
For that reminder alone, I give this film four out of five stars.