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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The influence of Terrence Malick can be felt in every drawn-out scene in this agonizingly slow and pretentious revisionist Western, despite superb performances by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


Unlike American Outlaws, which sought to add to the legend of Jesse James, director Andrew Dominik's meandering mediation on fame and notoriety is more concerned with hero worship turned fatal. Based on Ron Hansen's book, Jesse James introduces us to an ailing and paranoid outlaw (Pitt) who's ready to retire and fade into obscurity with his family. Robert Ford (Affleck) doesn't know this. Having admired James from afar for years, the 19-year-old aspiring train robber wants to show that's he got what it takes to ride by his idol's side. But the ingratiating Ford doesn't have James' ear, as Dominik subtly reveals early in the proceedings. As the gang relaxes before a robbery, Ford sits down next to James. Seconds later, James leaps to his feet to grab some grub without acknowledging Ford's presence. Despite this initial shunning, Ford becomes so devoted to James that James cannot help but take notice of his rather creepy admirer. "Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?" James asks. With James unwilling to embrace him, Ford's admiration slowly turns to animosity. James' rejection finally pushes Ford to go to the police. But Ford knows that the increasingly suspicious James--who's already killing off gang members he believes are out to get him--will soon set his sights on him and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell).


As Jesse James, Brad Pitt's pale, gaunt and unkempt. Think Val Kilmer in Tombstone. His James is a fatigued but still-fearsome American icon eager to leave behind his criminal past. Everything Pitt says is said with the hint of a concealed threat. When he says nothing, the silence is deafening. You can feel the tension Pitt creates by just smiling to himself while staring hard at those on his bad side. But James can't stop looking over his shoulder, and the paranoia Pitt lends him is contagious. He's also rubbed the wrong way by Ford, whom he can't figure out. What's most impressive about the quietly unsettling Affleck is that he's able to generate some sympathy for his fawning fool. There's no denying that Ford is a sycophant who would gun down an innocent bystander if ordered to by James. As pathetic as he is, though, Ford takes so much abuse from James that you wonder why he doesn't snap sooner than later. The baby-faced Affleck presents an intriguing and genuinely frightening psychological profile of a damaged mind unable to cope with being spurned by the object of his adulation. In James' kill-or-be-killed world, you can understand what drives Ford to murder his idol, no matter how easy it is to condemn his actions. While Pitt and Affleck dominate Jesse James, an agitated Sam Rockwell gradually comes to serve as our eyes and ears. It is through Charley Ford that we see how the fates of James and Ford are entwined in life and in death.


Dominik reportedly spent forever whittling down Jesse James from three hours to 160 minutes. Every scene leading up to James' comeuppance is of vital importance, but there's still plenty to cut: shots of grass blowing in the wind and clouds passing by; extraneous dialogue; pregnant pauses. A leaner, meaner Jesse James would have allowed Andrew Dominik to ratchet up the stakes and heighten the sense of impending doom. But Dominik--who previously directed the tight, tough Chopper--perhaps has watched one too many of Terrence Malick's self-indulgent explorations on the human condition. Like Malick's The New World, the equally melancholy Jesse James fails to hold our attention as it lumbers toward its inevitable conclusion. And it outstays its welcome long after Ford guns down James. The shame of it is that Andrew Dominik knows how to get inside the heads of James and Ford. Theirs is a contentious relationship that keeps us on edge as both men begin to unravel. Andrew Dominik also does an admirable job turning Jesse James into a cautionary tale about today's celebrity-obsessed culture. There's a thinking-man's Western struggling to break free of Jesse James, one as smart and exciting as 3:10 to Yuma. Too bad Dominik failed to make the most of the time he spent locked away in his editing room.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 stars.