The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) Revisited

The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2007)I remember watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) during my lat year at art-school, I think I was too tired to really appreciate how good this western really is. Its been a while even at the time of release that the subject of Jesse James was adapted for the big-screen, having probably as many screen versions as Wyatt Earp. The genre itself was laying dormant, this was the beginning of a quieter, more considered era as it has now been rediscovered, rewritten for a new generation.

There is none of the bravado of the previous incarnations, the Robin Hood of the west, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Instead we find a gunfighter, a wanted and paranoid man constantly on the run and looking over his soldier. Reality is coming to the genre, able to humanize this figure of American folk-lore. Adapting Ron Hansen‘s of the same name that de-mythologises the gunfighter, adding layers of psychology in-between all the pulp and facts that surround him and his men that rode with him.

Joining him at that the end of his life, the final year or so in 1881, the last train robbery is about to go ahead when we meet the quiet and meek Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) who does anything to not ingratiate himself with older brother Frank James (Sam Shepard) who sees him as soon an irritant, wanting to get rid of him. We have yet to meet the younger brother Jesse (Brad Pitt) who leads a number of ruthless men. It’s early days really, yet I think that Shepherd is wasted in this role, I’m not too sure of his role in his life or real age, I know they rode together. For such a big name to have such a small part seems unnecessary. We do however have the visual tone of the film set very early on, from the time-lapsing of the clouds illustrating the passing of time, as fast as it passes in the sky it wanders down on the Earth. Depicted at times like blurred memories through the camera, even a few cheeky nods to John Ford‘s frames within dark frames. A modern western that lingers in the past at times.

Narration that fills in the gaps as we move through time and into the minds of the characters, moving from James to Ford as we meander towards that moment on April 2nd 1882. We know its coming but are really in no rush to get there. Plenty is to come as the men all go they’re separate ways. The focus is rightly on Ford the killer as we learn about this wannabe Jesse James who like any fan of a hero has built up an image, wanting to learn all he can when he is in the presence of Jesse, a super-fan given that rare chance to ride and live with him.

Obviously this is too much for Jesse who has enough to worry about, constantly on the move, it’s not a fun life as he once hoped, his old friends are slowly being caught or turning themselves in. A state of paranoia is setting in. Pitt becomes unhinged in this role that he has allowed to consume him. He isn’t just playing Jesse James, he is Jesse James, one of his better roles where it’s not all about Pitt who has to share the screen with Affleck who otherwise carries the film, the responsibility of both history and eventual obscurity weighs on his shoulders. Playing the part of an outcast really in a situation over his head, struggling at times to cope.

The conclusion is longer than I thought, the repercussions of that assassination, if you can call it that. It was a indeed a cowardly shot, which has been engrained into popular culture. Shooting your enemy in the back is the cowardly way instead of facing them head-on. It’s a theme that never leaves him. We saw him shoot from begins before, he can kill if only head-on. A cultural ideal that has lasted. Usually after the assassination the film would usually draw to a close, dealing with the aftermath shows that the genre has grown up, shaking off the mystery that surround the figure. Jame’s body made available for viewing, his photograph sold to the public. The hysteria surrounding his life continued into his death and into the pages and in the next century – film where he has been reborn and died on-screen many times. So where does this entry in the Jesse James cannon fit? Based on a fictional account of his last year alive, there is at least a sense more of facts, none of the fluff from your dime novels that influenced earlier adaptations. Then again it’s not fair to trample all over the past, it allowed us to get to this point, each version a reflection of the time. With the passing of time, history can be blurred, a novel can rewrite them completely, allowing you to see things in a different light, even to return to the facts and find the difference between reality between fact and fiction.

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3 responses

  1. An Art film that the critics favored. Western fans not so much.
    If I recollect, the movie infers that James allowed himself to be killed by Howard.
    James – a Hero in most depictions – is a tragic figure. Howard typically comes off badly.
    I don’t know anybody who has watched this movie twice.

    September 7, 2015 at 8:04 am

    • I think its an intersting new take on an old tale, shining light on the these historical figures. I know where you coming from however. Its not a western in the standard form, it uses it more like The Homesman as a time not a setting, there is little gun play more psychology.

      September 7, 2015 at 10:38 am

  2. Pingback: Professor Neil Campbell (Discussion 22/3/12) | Tim Neath - Visual Artist

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