Monday, January 26, 2009

Movie review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I'm going to be honest with you: this is not a movie that Mr. Mouse stayed awake through. He fell asleep during the first half hour (of this 160 minute movie) and eventually got up off the couch and went to bed unasked. I almost always have to ask because of the snoring but he went voluntarily this time. Even I nodded off rested my eyelids a couple of times. TAoJJbtCRF* is a gorgeously filmed and wonderfully acted movie, but fast-paced it ain't.

This film spans (approximately) the year just before Jesse James's death and the year just after. We first meet up with the James gang as they're about to pull off their last train robbery in Missouri. It's a new gang though: Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse James (Brad Pitt) are there, but all the other guys are new, including a cousin of theirs (Jeremy Renner), some petty thieves (Paul Schneider) and a few local knuckleheads (Garret Dillahunt - channeling his Jack McCall character from Deadwood).

Included among the knuckleheads are two Ford brothers, Charlie (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck). Bob Ford has followed Jesse's career of mayhem since he was a boy and is overwhelmed by his nearness to the man. By turns fawning and obsequious, then sullen and angry when his attentions are laughed at, Ford continues to worm himself into the outlaw's life. As the government starts to close in on Jesse, James becomes paranoid, turning on the men in his gang. At the film's climax, when Ford shoots Jesse in the bandit's own living room, the torment on Ford's face is clear: is he killing his idol before James kills him, or is he doing it to grab a place in the spotlight for himself.

Both Pitt and Affleck are outstanding in this film. Affleck was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the pathetic, cringing, lickspittle (but dead shot) Ford. Pitt is extremely convincing as the charismatic James in what may one of his best acting jobs to date. Supporting players are uniformly strong as well, although Mary Louise Parker was wasted in her miniscule role as Jesse's wife.

The problem with this movie is pacing. As in its lack thereof. Long stretches of time go by when nothing happens, and then longer stretches when the supporting characters do nothing but mutter at each other. Because Affleck and Pitt's characters are so compelling, they are sorely missed when they are not on-screen and, frankly, there's too much time without them.

If you've got plenty of time, are well-caffeinated and are a fan of the lore of the American West, then by all means indulge in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If any of those ingredients are missing, however ... well, you've been warned.

* It's also got one of the most cumbersome movie titles ever. I mean, really. I know it's the title of the book but jeesh.


  1. Now perhaps you should take a look at the original JESSE JAMES,1939, with Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James. Your Granny (a Henry Fonda groupie?) went with friends to the Ozarks to watch some of the filming, shot possibly where some of the action actually took place! I don't suppose they did any filming for this version there, although it would be fairly near where Brad Pitt grew up in Springfield, MO.

  2. Ooh - there's a photo in that old movie book of the scene where Tyrone Powers collapses off the chair in his living room after being shot ... and I kept remembering that photo while watching this version. I'll have to check the old one out.

    Tres cool that Granny saw them filming.

  3. Pitt and Affleck were great. I didn't have much problem staying focused on this slow paced film. Then again, I've always been partial to old westerns which tend to be languid. Fletch over at Blog Cabins recently watched this two and was baffled that Pitt didn't get a nom for this.