THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
a short take by Tony McRae

Jesse James is back on the silver screen.  He’s bad, he’s a family man, and he’s tormented.  In his day he was more famous than … well, more famous than Brad Pitt is today.  So what happens when a 21st century superstar plays the renowned bad man of yesteryear?

Not much, actually.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” stars Brad Pitt as Jesse and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford.  Unfortunately the movie, like the title, is too darn long at 2 hours and 40 minutes. What bothered me more than anything was that it took itself too seriously.  Each scene starts out well, what with the gorgeous cinematography and keen sense of place of Roger Deakins (arguably the leading cinematographer working today—he’s done most of the Cohen Bros.’ films), and the interestingly disturbing music of Nick Cave.  But director Andrew Dominik didn’t know where or when to stop a scene and get on with the story.  I got the impression he wanted to make sure we were aware of what he was doing, and to make doubly sure he used voice-over narration to drive home his points.

I’m not against long movies per se. I sat at attention during “Lawrence of Arabia” ( 216 minutes) and "The Godfather Part II” (200 minutes), both considerably longer than this picture at 180 minutes.  

I believe Dominik wanted to give us time to mull things over, to appreciate Jesse’s quirky and dangerous personality, to wonder who he’s going to kill next.  But I never took Brad Pitt seriously.  He was trying hard but it didn’t take for me.  Casey Affleck on the other hand came across as a truly disturbed young man, someone who could be obnoxious, creepy, and frightened at the same time.  Someone who could shoot Jesse James in the back.

Why another Jesse James movie?  If you include such gems as “Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter” and “Days of Jesse James” with Roy Rogers, and don’t count foreign films and TV shows, there are more than twenty Jesse James movies--and many others where he appears as a minor character.  None, as far as I could tell, care much about historical accuracy.  The best of the bunch is “Jesse James” with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda and Randolph Scott; the James brothers are depicted as misguided, yet heroic.  

It's laudable and reasonable, that after more recent westerns such as Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" and the remake of "3:10 to Yuma," that director Dominik aspires to a certain verisimilitude in a portrait of the west's most famous outlaw.  Trouble is, after a short time, I didn't really care.

It’s rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.

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