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Of all the movies made about or glancingly involving the 19th-century outlaw Jesse Woodson James,The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Fordis the most reflective, most ambitious, most intricately fascinating, and indisputably most beautiful. Based on the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, it picks up James late in his career, a few hours before his final train robbery, then covers the slow catastrophe of the gang's breakup over the next seven months even as the boss himself settles into an approximation of genteel retirement. But in another sense all of the movie is later than that. The very title assumes the audience's familiarity with James as a figure out of history and legend, and our awareness that he was--will be--murdered in his parlor one quiet afternoon by a backshooting crony.

The film--only the second to be made by New Zealand–born writer-director Andrew Dominik--reminds us that Dominik's debut film, Chopper (2000), was the cunningly off-kilter portrait of another real-life criminal psychopath who became a kind of rock star to his society. The Jesse James of this telling is no Robin Hood robbing the rich to give to the poor, and that train robbery we witness is punctuated by acts of gratuitous brutality, not gallantry. Nineteen-year-old Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) seeks to join the James gang out of hero worship stoked by the dime novels he secretes under his bed, but his glam hero (Brad Pitt) is a monster who takes private glee in infecting his accomplices with his own paranoia, then murdering them for it. In the careful orchestration of James's final moments, there's even a hint that he takes satisfaction in his own demise.

Affleck and Pitt (who co-produced with Ridley Scott, among others) are mesmerizing in the title roles, but the movie is enriched by an exceptional supporting cast: Sam Shepard as Jesse's older, more stable brother Frank; Sam Rockwell as Bob Ford's own brother Charlie, whose post-assassination descent into madness is astonishing to behold; Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, and Jeremy Renner as three variously doomed gang members; and Mary-Louise Parker, who as Jesse's wife Zee has few lines yet manages with looks and body language to invoke a wellnigh-novelistic backstory for herself. There are also electrifying cameos by James Carville, doing solid actorly work as the governor of Missouri; Ted Levine, as a lawman of antic spirit; and Nick Cave, composer of the film's score (with Warren Ellis) and screenwriter of the Aussie "Western" The Proposition, suddenly towering over a late scene to perform the folk song that set the terms for the book and movie's title.

Still, the real costar is Roger Deakins, probably the finest cinematographer at work today. The landscapes of the movie (mostly in Alberta and Manitoba) will linger in the memory as long as the distinctive faces, and we seem to feel the sting of its snows on our cheeks. Interior scenes are equally persuasive. Few Westerns have conveyed so tangibly the bleakness and austerity of the spaces people of the frontier called home, and sought in vain to warm with human spirit. --Richard T. Jameson

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CastCasey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Brooklynn Proulx
DirectorAndrew Dominik
Screen WriterAndrew Dominik, Ron Hansen
DVD Release Date:  February 5, 2008
Runtime:  160 minutes
Studio:  Warner Home Video
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review by . April 10, 2009
Let me begin this review by saying that in general, I hate Western movies. If you ask me to name my 100 favorite movies, Silverado and Dances with Wolves might come in somewhere around 95. I thought Eastwood's Unforgiven (released in 1992) was a dark, and crappy rehash of Pretty Woman (released in 1990), and I laughed out loud whenever listening to the contrived dialogues of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns.     So watching this movie was a pleasant surprise. Brad Pitt has a …
review by . May 22, 2008
I love this movie. From the performances to the cinematography to the timing to the direction to the music, it's emotional and cerebral.     It seems to me that it perfectly captures the feelings of being tired. Tired of running. Tired of being a nobody. If this is what a Western can be in the 21st Century then by all means, make more of them. There are no good and bad archetypes here. There's no blind patriotism tipping a white hat to a nation's mythological past. These are …
review by . February 07, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is one of the finer films about the history of the Old West 'heroes' such as Jesse James. It is difficult to describe the degree of high quality of the way in which this film has been created: the script (adapted by Andrew Dominick from Ron Hansen's novel) is as poetic as it is gritty and flows like a Shakespearean tragedy both in narration and in dialog; the exceptionally fine cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the flavor of the times, …
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