Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

One of the longest films of the fall (both in terms of title length and running length) is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seems every bit as long or longer than its 160 minutes. Parts of the movie are brilliant in a Terrence Malick-inspired way, but the lugubrious middle section is badly in need of the hand of a ruthless editor. The Assassination of Jesse James starts and finishes strong, but it will lose numerous viewers during a frustrating, meandering middle section that spends so much time fleshing out secondary characters that it often forgets about the title individuals. Ironically, it’s the movie’s half-hour coda that contains the most compelling material - material that often feels rushed and truncated.

One of the aspects of the life (and death) of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) addressed by this overblown drama is the way in which celebrity can take on a life of its own. Viewed in a cold, hard light, James (Brad Pitt) was a thief and a killer. However, even in his day, myth had overtaken reality. He was seen as a dashing, Robin Hood type who was vaunted in some quarters as a hero. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) found this out the hard way when he killed James. His initial expectation was that he would be greeted worldwide by thunderous applause. The reaction was quite different. After a period of curiosity, public opinion turned against him. The film’s title, in which he is referred to as “The Coward Robert Ford,” reflects this.

The first half-hour of The Assassination of Jesse James is great stuff. It’s September 7, 1881, and a train robbery is about to occur. James is 34 years old. This will be the final act of crime in a twelve year span for the James Gang, and will become known to history as the Blue Cut Train Robbery. Jesse and his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), still run the gang, but all of the other original members are either dead or in prison. So, accompanying them on this robbery are a bunch of locals. Robert Ford is among them. He's a huge fan of James', having idolized him since his youth. He also appears ill-equipped to be an outlaw. Frank says to him: "You don’t have the ingredients, Son." Nevertheless, he worms himself into Jesse’s trust and becomes an off-again/on-again companion until the day when an act half driven by fear and half by avarice leads him down the road to infamy.

The problem with the film is that the section bookended by the train robbery and Jesse’s death is ponderous. It concentrates on lesser characters who aren't especially interesting. Character development during this period for both Jesse and Robert is uneven. Throughout, Ford remains an enigma. How he became transformed from Jesse’s biggest fan to a man who viewed him with envy and jealousy is never effectively conveyed. By spending so much time with individuals who capture neither our interest nor our sympathy, director Andrew Dominik’s film veers off track. He gets it back on the rails before it rushes into the station for the ending and extended epilogue, but not before a lot of time has seemingly been wasted.

The film has three undeniable strengths. The acting, especially by Brad Pitt as a world-weary Jesse and Casey Affleck as the increasingly bitter Robert, is excellent. Stepping away from his superstar image, Pitt recalls the days of his early career when, as a character actor, he earned raves, and Affleck buries himself in the role. Support is provided by Sam Shepard as Frank (who’s only in about the first 30 minutes); Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife; and Zoey Deschanel in a small-but-critical part as Robert’s late-film love interest. Vying with the acting for top honors is the film’s cinematography, credited to the veteran Roger Deakins. His landscape shots of the open plains of Missouri are astounding, and there are countless breathtaking visual compositions throughout. Finally, in a departure from the norm, the voiceover narrative is informative, clever, and intelligent. It adds to the film’s structure rather than being redundant and extraneous.

The Assassination of Jesse James is too long. It wants to play like a sprawling novel that provides insight into all of the characters, not just the main ones. But films are not novels and this approach encourages viewer apathy. Also curious is that the most intriguing material in the movie - the way that public opinion toward Ford changes after James’ assassination - is given short shrift. That’s when the movie comes alive and becomes vital. That’s also when it ends. As Westerns go, this feels like the kind of thing Terrence Malick might produce if his creative powers were ebbing. It’s far less engaging than the recent 3:10 to Yuma remake and concentrates more on the details than the broad picture. There’s a place for this sort of thing in the genre, but The Assassination of Jesse James is too protracted and oblique to represent it effectively.

Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:40
U.S. Release Date: 2007-09-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1