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The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

I saw KILLING THEM SOFTLY today and I’m working on the review right now, and that made me realize that when I finally caught up with the director’s previous movie earlier in the year I didn’t ever post a review of it. But it turns out I did write some stuff in my notebook, so I dug that up and I don’t mean to brag but I am a pretty good typist so here is a quickie review for you, friends.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD has gotta be the longest title to a movie that I’ve ever reviewed. What’s that, 17 syllables? THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS is only 11, LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS: THE OWLS OF GAHOOLE is 12 or 13 (depending on your pronunciation of “owls”), and both of those have colons I think, so that softens the blow. This has no colons. This title is amazing.

The movie is good too. It’s the second by Andrew Dominik of CHOPPER fame and has a great reputation, so I’m not sure what took me so long. You could say it’s a western, but it’s more of an art movie than that implies. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, it has an omniscient narrator (it’s based on a book), and most of it takes place after the James Gang’s last robbery. The titletational coward (Casey Affleck) is an eager young doofus who attaches himself to the gang for that last crime, then manages to stay in Jesse James’s life afterwards, a celebrity hanger-on like some kind of O.G. Kaeto Kaelin.

The Coward Robert Ford (they just call him Bob) grew up reading about his brother’s pal Jesse James in the magazines and idolized him. He’s one of those embarrassing fans, he doesn’t know how to be cool about it. If his brothers tease him he whines and makes it worse; if pressed he lists all the similarities between him and Jesse, including stuff like the amount of letters in his brothers’ names. This was before TREKKIES was invented, so they couldn’t just do a documentary on him.

Brad Pitt plays Jesse James, and it’s probly one of his best performances. Sometimes he seems amused by Bob’s fandom, sometimes uncomfortable with it. He grows more and more paranoid over time, and starts killing the members of his gang. When Bob decides he’s gonna help the governor (James Carville!) catch Jesse, the outlaw torments the shit out of him by acting extra nice. You (and Bob) get the feeling that Jesse knows what’s going on and lets Bob squirm and be defensive.

But Affleck is the real star and I’ve always found him a lovable goofball but this is more than I knew he was capable of. It’s a pretty complex character that straddles the line of sympathetic and creepy, leaning more into the creepy but not in an over-the-top sort of way. A good layered weirdo sad person who wants to be famous. The criminal who can’t hang with the others but wants it way more than they do and forces his way in.

The supporting cast is incredible too, one of these character actor feasts. Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt and Paul Schneider are all in there and all make an impression. There’s some nice hang out scenes, shit-shooting and personality conflicts. Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel also show up, although they don’t get to play around with the redneck accents, tough guy poses and pistols that the men get to.

It’s a nice lookin movie, very Terence Malicky, also reminds me of MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. Lots of wide shots, wind blowing across plants, comtemplative type of shit. It’s mostly a daylight movie, but the most atmospheric scene is that last train robbery, the masked bandits shrouded in the night, only natural light creeping through the fog (and steam?) Look at this shit:


No surprise, Roger Deakins shot this one. It’s also a quiet movie with the music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, same guys that do John Hillcoat’s movies. So they’re trying to form some type of Australian arty crime movie mafia I guess.

I like that this is a different angle on the Jesse James story. It’s taking its sweet time with what might be the last 15 minutes of a traditional biopic. It’s Jesse James: The Retirement Years. The story of the legendary outlaw sitting around in his yard, having breakfast, etc. But the most unique thing about the movie is the examination of what amounts to a celebrity stalker in the Old West. I thought this was only a phenomenon of the TV age, but I guess not. Can’t believe he could know his hero’s shoe size without the internet. I guess those dime store novels were more thorough than I realized.

And the ending is an interesting “oh shit, is that what that was about?” twist on an actual historical event. The movie implies that Jesse James sort of let Bob kill him. He just read an article in the newspaper that gave him every reason to suspect Bob’s betrayal. Then he uncharacteristically took off his guns, then decided to turn his back and stand up on a chair to dust a framed picture on the wall. This is all what really happened, so could that really be why? Or did the most legendary outlaw of all time really let his guard down to do housework?

Even though I took so damn long to watch this, I was actually excited for it before it came out just because I liked CHOPPER so much. So I was surprised when it not only got way more attention than his first movie, but became one of the most acclaimed of its year, maybe even decade. Personally I prefer CHOPPER, but I have to say I’m actually surprised by how much Dominik advanced as a filmatist between movies one and two. CHOPPER has some show-offy directational bits, but I just remember that great character and incredible performance by Bana and forget about what’s surrounding him. By the time of THE LEGEND OF ROBERT COWARD or whatever he seems more polished as a stylist and more serious. More pretentious too, probly, but that’s okay, somebody’s gotta reach for the stars.

And way to bring back narrators, bud, that was a good one.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, December 8th, 2012 at 12:29 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

38 Responses to “The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford”

  1. A wonderful film. I’d recommend checking out Ron Hansen’s excellent book too. It’s a perfect companion piece to the film. As meticulously researched as any novel I’ve ever read.

  2. caruso_stalker217

    December 8th, 2012 at 2:34 am

    The ending of this film always gets ol’ Caruso a little teary-eyed. Even if I’m just watching it on the YouTube. What a wonderful film this is.

  3. Also, this would be the time to recommend, once again, that Vern watch PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID, which was an influence to both Ron Hansen and Andrew Dominik.

  4. Best post-UNFORGIVEN Western for me, hands-down.

  5. As Jesse James movies go this is a good one, but as westerns go I prefer Walter Hill’s version of the same story.

  6. Love this. Interesting how Andrew Dominik stole the ending from the alternate ending of YOGI BEAR – THE MOVIE, though.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m6w0r-ScEG4

  7. I absolutely love the last thirty minutes of this movie. I could just watch that over and over. Of course the two hours that precede it are just as wonderful, but yeah, that grand wrap up and retelling of the end of Bob’s life post assassination gets me every time.

    And when this movie came out, this was one of those soundtracks that I just couldn’t stop listening to, over and over and over, for a very long time. I still play it every now and then when I am feeling contemplative and old west-y (and a lil artsy-fartsy).

  8. I like that Nick Cave gets a little musical cameo in this one, singing Bob’s guilt right to his face. Always good to see him as well as hear him.

  9. An American Masterpiece if ever there was one. This, There Will Be Blood and The New World are the best films of the past decade, in my book.

    I think Dominik did some second unit stuff for the New World, which is probably where he met Malick. I heard that he showed The Assassination of Jesse James to Malick and got some feedback on the editing, etc. Also, there’s a special thanks to Malick in Gone, Baby, Gone (which starred Affleck and was directed by his brother Ben), and now Ben Affleck’s in Malick’s new film, To The Wonder. Also, Pitt did Tree of Life after Jesse James.

    So I guess they’re all friends and have family barbecues together and shit.

  10. caruso_stalker217

    December 8th, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    THE NEW WORLD is a masterpiece. The extended version gets it just right.

  11. It is interesting that Australians seem so interested in making Westerns. Given the Australian landscape, this does make some sort of sense, but they’re still playing with American iconography.

  12. THE PROPOSITION was an interesting example of that, and took it further by actually being set in Australia. It played with the American iconography as well, namely in how Aborigines were treated in contrast to how Native Americans were treated during this time.

  13. This was a good one. Brad Pitt’s a beast.

  14. Love this picture. Top ten of last decade, easy. Quite a year for Casey with GONE BABY GONE.

    Really hope the new one meets the insane expectations set by Mr. Dominic’s first two films…

  15. I love THE ASSASSINATION OF etc. Really moving, gorgeous to look at and I was never bored during it’s over two and a half hour running time.

    I wish Australia made more Westerns. We have some interesting history, beautiful landscapes and people who know how to shoot them effectively. What I particularly like about THE PROPOSITION is that, like other recent Aussie films set around that time period (VAN DIEMENS LAND, LUCKY COUNTRY), it has a grim, sad tone that sets it apart from a lot of other Westerns. Maybe that’s because Australians tend not to mythologise or romanticise the country’s history. I remember the 2003 NED KELLY film attracted a lot of controversy and bombed domestically.

  16. caruso_stalker217

    December 9th, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    Does QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER count as an Australian western>

  17. The Original... Paul

    December 9th, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    I skipped “Killing Them Softly” because it came out over here at around the same time as “Detachment”, “The Hunter” and “The Forgiveness of Blood”. If I’d seen one more depressing movie during that particular marathon, which according to the reviews it is, I think I would’ve been tempted to end it all.

    I think “The Assassination”… might unfortunately be one of those films that everybody says is really good but that I never see because I have zero interest in the subject matter. I’ll try and look it up some time though, there seems to be a fairly unanimous opinion that this is a good one.

    “Brad Pitt plays Jesse James, and it’s probly one of his best performances.” That’s gotta be one hell of a performance…

  18. I wouldn’t call QUIGLEY DOWN UNDER an “Australian western” so much as a western set in Australia. It’s cool that they got Simon Wincer to direct and from what I remember it’s not embarrassingly inaccurate, but most of the Australian stuff is just window dressing. I watched it a lot as a teenager but I haven’t seen it since. Maybe I’ll watch it again.

  19. Pegsman, I love the violence in THE LONG RIDERS, but I find the characters kind of dull. James Keach’s portrayal of Jesse James is about the most lifeless I’ve ever seen. I prefer the weird, crazy, and slightly retarded GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID. Robert Duvall was a brilliant choice to play Jesse. Still, if a person wanted to learn about James’ life through movies only, I’d recommend a triple feature of RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (for insight into Jesse’s life as a bushwhacker…even though he doesn’t actually appear in it), THE LONG RIDERS (for a relatively accurate look at Jesse’s life as a bank and train robber) and ASSASSINATION (for an in-depth look at Jesse’s last days…also, for being the best and most accurate film on Jesse James ever made).

  20. Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwan

    December 10th, 2012 at 1:12 am

    This movie has one of my favorite shoot-outs ever. When they’re shooting at each other in the attic and they keep missing at close range, it struck me as one of the most original and realistic shootouts I’d ever seen in a western. So that’s probably the big thing that’s always stuck out to me about this movie.

  21. Paul what’s this shit about “subject matter”? The subject matter is the ecstatic truth of cinema, quit sleepin on it!

  22. David, you’re absolutely right, James Keach is the weakest link in THE LONG RIDERS. But the rest of the real life brothers are good, especially the Carradine brothers, and so is the movie.

  23. With all the talk about the death of the Western, there have some pretty great Westerns in the past couple of decades. Sure, we don’t get them as often as we used to, but when they come around they’re usually of relatively high quality.

    I haven’t watched Quigley Down Under since I was a kid. I think it counts as an Australian Western, even if it’s not quite as gritty as some of my favorites. I vaguely remember a scene with a long range rifle that was kind of cool, though.

  24. The Original... Paul

    December 10th, 2012 at 7:13 am

    Renfield – I know little and care less about Jesse James. He’s just not somebody that I’ve ever been particularly interested in. I grew up with the whole Robin Hood mythos, although Hollywood hasn’t exactly been kind to that one either. (Stop having Robin Hood fuck his sister, damn you! Seriously, every time they do the whole Marian-Robin love interest thing on film, another little piece of my childhood dies.) I think Jesse James is very much an American myth.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ll watch the film if it’s on, enough people have said it’s really good for me to do that. It’s just not the kind of thing I would seek out.

  25. The Original... Paul

    December 10th, 2012 at 7:20 am

    …Although calling him a “myth” is probably unkind, since I am at least aware that he existed. Whoops.

  26. Paul: I’ll echo Renfield: ostensible subject matter is the last thing you think about when you watch JESSE JAMES, much in the way that the socioeconomic realities of Qing China aren’t the most relevant factor in CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON. I say this as someone who isn’t a big fan of westerns. Ditto DEADWOOD.

    I’d also agree that Pitt is as good in this film as he was in FIGHT CLUB and 12 MONKEYS, if not better.

  27. Check out WAKE IN FRIGHT, which isn’t an Australian Western but it is set in the outback. It’s brutal.

  28. Yes, WAKE IN FRIGHT is fantastic. Definitely reminds me of a few places I’ve been to. I can only imagine it was even more effective when it was released. A damn shame this movie was buried for as long as it was.

  29. This is a great movie, one of my favorites in recent years. it plays right along with the great movies of John Hillcoat, not just because of that score also the guy who mentioned PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is dead on. I hope more people see this movie, since it was not a hit and as such already seems to be somewhat forgotten.

  30. I was wowed by Casey Affleck when I saw this for the first time, but part of that is because I really didn’t know who he was. I thought his whole thing was part of this great character, but it turned out he always talks with that weeny voice and with those weeny mannerisms. Still like the job he did, but not quite as much as I originally thought!

  31. The movies always skip over what a racist shitheel Jesse James was.

  32. Parker, Jesse James did fight for the South, so it’s not a stretch to think he was a racist, but what evidence do you have beyond that?

  33. So that’s TWO movies where Nick Cave sings a song to Brad Pitt? It’s a weird world.

  34. Can’t remember where I read it but there’s a quote of his where he swore to kill any free blacks he found in Missouri. Probably in one of his delusional rambling letters to the newspapers.

  35. Ah, I see. I don’t doubt it, I’ve just read a good deal on Jesse James and I’ve never come across that tidbit. I don’t think it would’ve been relevant to include it in ASSASSINATION though. They already portray Jesse James as the back-shooting nut he was.

  36. The book is excellent. Incredibly dense and thorough. Kinda like having the most entertaining history lesson ever.

    I think we’ve had some really good Westerns this century. I liked Costner’s Open Range, loved Walter Hill’s Broken Trail, but the one that I have a real soft spot for is Ed Harris’ Appaloosa. Could watch that over and over again.

  37. Knox, have you read Hansen’s first novel, DESPERADOES? It’s about the Dalton Gang and almost as good as ASSASSINATION, which is really fucking good.

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