” The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford puts the focus firmly on the characters as the narrative artfully moves like a meditation on concepts of hero worship, loyalty, guilt and duty.”
Review (text version)
When is a western not a western? When it’s a slow burning psychological thriller that just happens to be set in the last golden days of the old “west”.
Robert Ford collects penny novelettes of the exploits of outlaw Jesse James, no doubt highly romaticised for a better read, but part of him believes, or at least wants to believe what is there on the page. It is, after all, his only real frame of reference for James until he actually meets the man himself.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, yes, the film with the second longest title in film history, demythologises an often told tale. There have been many, many film incarnations of Jesse James over the years, usually in the vein of the action western.
The film puts the focus firmly on the characters as the narrative artfully moves like a meditation on concepts of hero worship, loyalty, guilt and duty.
The script evolved from a 1980s book, discovered in a second hand shop by writer / director Andrew Domink. His ability to go beyond the menace of a character, really get inside him, is even better than in Chopper, his first feature film from 2000. The representation of both Ford and James is more studied and certainly more nuanced than the brash and larger than life Chopper Read.
The pace of the film sets it way apart from mainstream action flicks – it’s deliberate, methodical – scenes are long, almost mini movies in their own right. Llike watching a deck of cards being very slowly dealt. As each card is revealed, a new scene, new insights, building the stakes – the game becoming more intense.
Now, Brad Pitt’s name and picture may be up front on the poster, but this movie really does belong to Casey Afleck.
His interpretation of Ford – a complex bundle of tongue tied naivety and misguided ambition is engrossing to watch. The “journey” for the character – from idol worshiper to sacrificial slayer – is almost mythical in its form, but the humanity and ambivalence Afleck brings to the build up and the final deed is rooted firmly in a reality. The oscar nod for the film was well deserved.
Rather than just following Ford or James as protagonist, the film often deviates to flesh out parallel story lines… Seemingly unrelated… but then we’re brought back again to a crossroad in the plot where either Ford of James intersect. While the plot is linear this criss crossing weaves a very broad tapestry of relationships and makes for a great study of even the minor characters – they are all very well defined.
So many of them you look at and think, “These guys were the great anti heroes of the west?” They just look like a bunch of not very bright hicks… and yes, it seems that may well have been the case… which makes this such a refreshing take on a not so romanticised view of history.
In significant support roles are Sam Rockwell as Charlie Ford, Paul Schneider and Garret Dillahunt, probably best known as Bert from the TV comedy “Raising Hope”, here playing Ed Miller, a casual member of the Jame’s gang. In one particular scene we know where Jesse is at from the start, he’s suspecting someone is colluding with others against him, but can he get any more information out of Ed Miller?
How many times have I seen this film? – four, five – and every time that scene results in holding my breath – the tension, the sense of entrapment and “will the inevitable become the inevitable?” every time… Is the tension in the writing? It’s certainly not in the words but it’s there in what the characters are NOT talking about.
All the craft elements of film making come together in one defined moment of excellence – the lighting, the selection of shot sizes, costuming, microphone placement, sound mixing and particularly editing – just the right moment to cut or to hold that look, that pause – and of course in performance.
Roger Deakins cinematography is a stand out. Scene after scene is like an artwork worthy of framing. There’s an interesting technique used in linking passages between key scenes or time shifts, filming through a distorted, semi obscuring glass diffuser, sort of mimicking the distortion sometimes seen in old photos of the era.
It adds a dream like, ye olde time-machine quality, as if the images have been plucked out of the past and somehow, through some mechanical and optical means, are projected into the here and now across time and space.
The pastel hues and starkness of the winter landscapes – a very limited palette of greys, blues, beige and black make up much of the film and that washed out quality clash abrasively with night exteriors – the train robbery in particular – with its nightmarish masked assailants emerging from a vast screen of blackness – inhuman shapes illuminated only by a harsh direct lamp light. It’s visually daring, striking and just plain creepy – atmospheric stuff supplied here in spade-fulls.
There is also a very interesting post script that transports us several years forward, to see the later years of Ford’s life expressed in just a couple of scenes and it’s in these final moments of the film that we can really appreciate just how well Casey Aflek and writer / director Domink have made Robert Ford into a living, breathing person – way beyond the legend – way beyond the hero worshiper and way beyond the misguided giant slayer.
review © 2016 Greg Punch.
Production company (review):
Film “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
Scott Free Productions
Plan B Entertainment
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Writer / director:
Select cast: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Hugh Ross (narrator)
Novel “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” by:
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1983
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