Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Movie review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford *****


Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.


Few things in life are as hard to defend as a movie review imploring you to see a slow, very long, thoughtful, artful, meditative western, even if it does have a major movie star at its center. (And yes, sir, that means you're in for plenty of ole rippling wheat fields and vast, wide-open prairies, complete with time-lapsed clouds shuttling lyrically across expansive auburn skies, not once or twice but several times.) Without that movie star - in this case, Brad Pitt, and rarely better - you could dismiss it all easily.

The review, not the movie.

But in another climate, in another decade, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - which finally opens today in Toledo after much stalling and hand-wringing by the studio marketing cowpokes who plainly do not know what to do with it - would have been an event. And likely, considering its epic length, stars, insights, gravitas, gorgeous cinematography, and formal elegance, Jesse James was conceived that way. Not to be loved, but to be appreciated.

Well, I love it, too.

It's a film to get lost in, to stumble around in, full of ambiguities and odd conversations that only reveal themselves with patience, with a slide toward a foregone conclusion that finds time for history, myth, and the blurring of our own memories. Jesse James, as historians take pains to point out, was no Robin Hood, no protector of the poor. He could not be trusted; he shot women and children. He was an outlaw in the nastiest sense. But the film, taking the road less moseyed, is not interested in correcting that record but wondering why we create myths at all.

Short answer:

To debunk them.

Frankly, at the moment, it's hard admiring an ambitious, argumentative picture like this without feeling you've stepped into a brawl or need to apologize. But patience offers its rewards. And patience, or the lack thereof, is also what kills a movie like The Assassination of Jesse James - which, in a funny way, is a perversely perfect fate. For here is a movie being led to its own certain death about a figure whose demise was all but preordained, expected even. Heck, it's there in the title - Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is murdered in The Assassination of Jesse James, shot (in the back, of course) by coward Robert Ford (Casey Affleck).

Inevitability is the theme.

(Sorry for the spoiler. I think.)

But this isn't one of those westerns about the end of the western, the closing of the frontier, or the slow fade of a way of life. It's not interested in the whys. It's about fame, and the 19th-century equivalent of a fan boy, and how the thing that sustains you (like fear or patience) is often the thing that can end you. When the film begins, Bob Ford is a bit late to the party. We are witnessing the desperate last gasps of the legendary James Gang - "In Europe, they know two things about America," we hear. "Mark Twain. Jesse James."

But word moved slow then.

The Assassination of Jesse James finds the gang can't shoot straight much anymore. Which doesn't mean they can't shoot at all or act brutally. Bob's brother, Charlie (Sam Rockwell), is a member, not an original, but one of the "country rubes culled from the local hillsides" that Jesse hired as the old gang met untimely ends or merely faded away into the Missouri woods. The crew we meet, assembled for the infamous Blue Cut train hijacking of 1881, is not particularly loyal, but threatened into compliance, and mainly ... dumb. Director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins stage the nighttime heist under a halo of fog and lanterns, throwing shadows over muted autumnal browns and yellows, blurring the corners of the frame like old photographs. You won't find a movie sequence this year quite so evocative - or so haunting.

Speaking of haunting ...

Bob Ford has the appearance of an apparition, or a grim reaper. His grin is lopsided and he wears a stovepipe hat and a red set of rims around cold eyes. At another time, we figure, this guy wouldn't get within a yard of Jesse, who is celebrity royalty before there was such designation. But exhaustion has set in, and the film takes on a trance-like fatalism, a doom-laden inevitability (there's that word again) that Jesse is all but welcoming. Bob asks Jesse's brother, Frank (Sam Shepherd, not nearly on screen enough) if he can tag along, "act as sort of sidekick to everyone."

Bells go off.

That's what a stalker says, that's what someone who has been reading too much of Jesse's press, and too many of the dime-store novels that recountshis exploits, would call himself - this is not a harmless fan who wants to be like Jesse, but, as Jesse himself comes to see, "wants to be me." There's something eerie in the casting of Affleck, who comes into focus with a vibrancy brother Ben never could pull off, playing a striver, standing in the shadows of his older role model.

But the casting of a wary Pitt is where The Assassination of Jesse James pays off - for here is a guy who must understand, as well as anyone, the necessity to shine, and to fear the gaze of an adoring public. Pitt may be a little too much the movie star to capture the literal aches and the physical exhaustion of Jesse (who was 34 when he died), but distrust wafts from him like thick musk. Fame is no longer paying dividends since the paranoia and cycle of anxiety that comes with fame has become as palpable as it is justified. It's the kind of nervous stardom that Warren Beatty would have played 40 years ago.

The kind of movie he would have made, too: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford revels in elegiac silences and a keen understanding of people who feel the need to fill dead spots in their life with the glory of others. As Bob tells Jesse, "I got qualities that don't come shinin' through at the outset." Jesse knows what they are, but why step out of their way? Why, when he put 'em there himself?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: or 419-724-6117.

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