'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' Review: Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s sprawling psychological western

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali Khan

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 Western film directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik based on a 1983 novel of the same name by American novelist Ron Hansen. The movie stars Brad Pitt as the legendary American outlaw Jesse James and Casey Affleck as the effete hero-worshiper Robert Ford. The movie’s unusually long title betrays the eventuality of the plot, pre-establishing Robert Ford as Jesse’s James would be assassin. But, then the movie is never meant to be a mystery! The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, on the contrary, is a complex character study, a story of a larger-than-life hero and a devout fan, a tale of hatred spawned by envy and lust, a documentation of most tumultuous phase in the American History, and an ode to the disputed yet decorated heroes of the American folklore.

Watch the review by Film & TV Critic Murtaza Ali Khan here (in HINDI)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford gives an account of the twilight months of Jesse James’ life. It is the year 1881 and the outlaw Jesse James, one half of the infamous James Brothers, has already attained a cult figure in the American folklore. Jesse James is 34 years old and the years of pillage, slaughter and hoodwinking (the law) has started to take a toll on him, physically as well as mentally. Throughout the movie, a voiceover reminds the viewer of Jesse James’ increasingly debilitated physical state and his growing paranoia. 19-year-old Robert Ford, having grown idolizing Jesse James, is desperate to join the James gang. He relies on his brother Charley Ford, an existing member of the gang, to get introduced to his childhood idol.

When Robert finally meets James, the latter comes across as a completely different individual from what he had learnt and read over the years, someone who is more of a ghost than a hero, a man not proud of his exploits but one desperate to avoid its repercussions and escape the impending doom. As the narrative progresses, the tension between the two characters slowly and steadily approaches its crescendo as Robert Ford’s veneration for Jesse James intermittently takes different forms, that of envy, lust, revulsion and guilt, as James gradually retires into a state of delirium. The two characters are driven by their fates, and the actual killing gives the impression of a ritual, a kind of tacit agreement between the hunter and the hunted to fulfill their respective destinies.

Jesse James was a product of the American Civil War. A war poses threats and creates opportunities. It breeds heroes as well as villains. But, this differentiation of the virtuous from the vile is purely a matter of perception. While some heralded Jesse James as a hero, others disdained him as a villain. While writers of his time often described him as a heroic outlaw who, à la Robin Hood, would rob the rich in order to feed the poor, but there is very little historical evidence that Jesse and gang ever robbed to satiate the needs of anyone but themselves. Irrespectively, Jesse James continues to enjoy a cult status in the American folklore. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford too seems ambiguous in its depiction of Jesse James. In the movie, he is depicted as a pillager and a remorseless killer while at the same time he is projected as a family oriented man.

Brad Pitt plays the part of Jesse James with great conviction and authority, effacing any doubts as far his acting credentials are concerned. During the course of the movie, Brad Pitt accomplishes something that’s seldom associated with him: Brad Pitt the Superstar steps aside completely making way for an increasingly deranged outlaw who seems to be quickly running out of time. Though Pitt failed to make the cut for the Oscars, he deservedly won the best actor award at the Venice film festival for his brilliant portrayal of Jesse James. Another actor who is equally brilliant in his portrayal in the movie, if not better, is Casey Affleck. As Robert Ford, Affleck epitomizes cowardice; albeit as an oxymoron: to have the courage to shoot the man you idolize (and probably love amorously) cold-bloodedly in the back of the head. Affleck unarguably delivered his best performance yet and was well rewarded by an Oscar nomination. Pitt and Affleck are well supported by the rest of the cast that includes the likes of Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, and Sam Shepard.

Roger Deakins’ widescreen cinematography that brilliantly captures the hypotonic beauty of the wide open Canadian terrain is highly reminiscent of the films of Terence Mallick who seems to be filmmaker Andrew Dominik’s prime source of inspiration. The movie’s breathtaking cinematography is well complemented by its subtle background score that immensely adds to the beauty of the movie. After a testing overture, the movie slowly and steadily holds the viewer in a vice-like grip until its very end. The movie’s assassination plot is brilliantly blended with several subtexts and overtones that elevate it to the ranks of a metaphor and an allegory. Overall, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the best movies to have come out in the recent years and is a must watch for anyone who understands and values intelligent and thought-provoking cinema.

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