THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a brilliant character study, epically engraved at the deepest corner of the Western it disguises itself as. Instead of going by legend of how a coward like Bob Ford shot heroic Jesse James in the back, this film brilliantly ventures into riskier territory, projecting both the criminal and his assassinator as the human beings they actually were, and not once projecting them as the iconic names that the American public has branded onto them. Director Andrew Dominick shows the complete realism of this story by giving the film, itself, its own mythical disposition. The film folds out like a slow-paced novel. Little action, this is a Western in its own ballpark, keeping its characters more epic than explosions and gunfights, and using this at its advantage of opening the viewer’s eyes to how simple a person’s life can be strung down into a hellish nightmare. One of which wakening could only make for even more hellish tribulations.

Jesse James, as played brilliantly by Brad Pitt, is never shown as that Robin Hood-like figure so commonly believed. Instead, it shows him as a husband and a father, whose violent ways are only prowling his proposed nature. Instead of showing James rob the trains to help give money to those who needed it, he is shown in darker, more wicked situations in which create questions to his own sanity, faith, and desperate convictions. In a masterfully sequences moment in the film, Jesse is shown beating a child, asking for the whereabouts of another outlaw, hoping to get the answer. But instead, he keeps his hand over the boy’s mouth as to not hear this response, and only keeps pounding on the boys head. This scene could easily exploit the man into being completely villainous. But instead, it asks to forgive him and become reasonable as this man has lost his own sanity due to personal disturbances.

Robert Ford, the man often noted as the coward that shot Jesse James, is shown as being no better, and no worse, than Jesse James. Played by Casey Affleck, Bob Ford is a dreamer. He is star-struck to obsession by his idol and actually begins to form a strain of lust for James. He is a confused individual, himself running from his own personal demons and looking for a way of relief. His medicine is in actually talking with Jesse, getting to know him so that he himself can only build up doses of intimacy to his icon. But the more Ford gets to know James, is the more Ford wants to instead be like James’ celebrity and not his actual self. One scene that states all of Ford’s and James’ insecurities is when Ford watches Jesse take a bath. Lushly watching him, Ford is captured in James’ essence and James finds himself uncomfortable. “Can’t figure it out,” Jesse says. “Do you wanna be like me, or do you wanna be me.” Ford’s deeper hollowness only floods with insecurities before he replies: “I’m just making fun is all.” Casey Affleck, the brother of actor Ben, portrays Robert Ford in a confident light, bringing out the darkness of Ford without making him seem like a pretentious nobody. It is, though, very obvious that Ford could be branded a nobody, and he himself says it himself. But this is a term Ford himself has adapted due to the amount of unawareness that others have given him. The public gave him that tenure just as much as they would later call him “coward” for assassinating a man who all along was waiting to be put out of his own misery. Casey Affleck is a true marvel, giving one of the great performances of this decade, and fueling a stunning portrayal of culpability.

The final scenes of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” are the most powerful and heartbreaking. From the moment where Ford does kill Jesse James, to where years later he is branded “coward” and must live with this term, and with guilt, and regret, up until he himself enters the kind of emotional darkness that Jesse James himself had personally endured. With Andrew Dominick’s screenplay, based on the majestic novel by Ron Hansen, Dominick himself pulls out the massive effectiveness of these two men, bruised by what legend has brought them out to be. The film is not at all trying to make this theme only. Many others exist in many of the other moments of the film, but it does become immaculately clear what Dominick and Hansen’s intentions were when telling this story. And this theme makes hard for the viewer not to connect to both James and Ford in the same light. Neither James nor Ford were heroes, and neither were cowards. Of course they’ve had moments of cowardice. But they were, to profound knowledge, completely broken human beings, destined to find a better reason. This is the best film of the year.

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~ by jerkwoddjh on May 11, 2009.

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