Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the second film of director Andrew Dominik, whose first feature length film was Chopper, a film about Australian stand over man turned b grade celebrity, Mark 'Chopper' Read.

As with Chopper, Dominik's film is shaped around its central character, though unlike Chopper, Dominik leaves a modern Australia behind to centre on America at the end of the 19th Century, and the death of the mythical figure, Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt. Throughout the film, the two create an imagine of a moody, paranoid and fatalistic figure, touched slightly with a paganism that proves, for the film's length, to be quite interesting. It was only after the film that I wondered how correct such a portrayal was? The film makes no mention of the marriage between Jesse and his first cousin, just as the relationship between Jesse and Frank is fleeting, and Dominik only briefly touches on the concept of Jesse James being a warrior in a civil war that was no longer taking place. In addition, the film, having rumoured to be originally four hours in length before studios requested it cut down, has a lot of moments and relationships where that editing is felt: the shooting in the opening train robbery is never explored, the relationship between Hite and Liddle feels cut down, and at times, the voice over (which I must admit to quite enjoying--a rarity in voice overs) was used to cover information that was surely in the original version of the film.

Yet, still, I did greatly enjoy it. The pacing of the film, even cut, is nicely done, and the performances, especially Casey Affleck's Robert Ford, who goes from a whiny, annoyance, to a resigned regret by the end of the film, are across the board good. Even the presence of Sam Rockwell, an actor that I've only ever liked in one film, didn't bother me. The film is, also, beautiful to watch, despite the obvious influence of Terrance Malik. But it's hard not to look at the empty winter, or the drying out of the fall in the film, and be captured by the look of it, or to read the metaphor of James' emotional state being reflected in it as well. It is hard not to enjoy the building paranoia and emptiness inside Pitt's James as he rides across the cold, dead winter land to visit his old gang members and read into the pairing of the land and figure a knowledge that James, embarked on his journey and away from his family, away from rationality, is out of touch of his emotions, and only death will result.

In the end, however, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not an entirely successful film. The intent of Dominik is to give a good amount of time to Ford and the remains of James' gang as much of James, but the cut down running time really does mean that it should have just been about Ford and James, which the film's narrative simply doesn't allow. You, the viewer, cannot escape the sensation that you've missed something, that characterisation and plot has been hidden from you. It's unfortunate, given what Dominik was capable of putting into the hour and a half of Chopper that he didn't just craft a smaller film, but how and why these decisions are reached, I do not know. Either way, it's still a good film, and one that I enjoyed watching from beginning to end.


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