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An Homage to Western History in a Moody Daguerreotype Style

  • Feb 7, 2008
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, shot in subtle lighting whether in darkly intimate interiors or on the vast plains at times heightened by snowlight, but always in the feeling of the quality of daguerreotypes; the musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is strangely apropos without seeming to borrow from any previous source; and the cast of fine actors play the film as a true ensemble work. Director Andrew Dominik has accomplished a masterpiece.

The story begins subtly in the last year of the James gang at the final train robbery in 1881. Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) have gathered remnant criminals to bolster their decimated gang - Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) among them. The Ford brothers want to ride with Jesse: 19-year old Robert (Casey Affleck) idolizes Jesse and his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) enjoys the attention of the gang's fame. Jesse James, at only age 34, is at the end of his career, content to be at home with his wife Zee (Mary Louise Parker) and children. But Robert's adoration results in a chain of events that slowly dissembles the gang and results in Robert's obsessive revenge for Jesse's murder of one of the members fired by the promise of reward for the capture of Jesse James, dead or alive. History and the title of the film tell the plot so there are no surprises here. It is the inevitable unfolding of the drama and the tension of the interplay of the actors that drives the mood of the story. The film does not stop with the killing of Jesse James but instead follows the descent of the lives of Robert (now wealthy and in love a stripper - Zooey Deschanel) and the progressing insanity of Charley to an end that fades like the proverbial sunset on a time in our history we will never forget.

Each of the actors is exceptional, and despite the glory of having big name stars associated with the cast, the effect is one of pure ensemble work. The 160 minute running time of the film never seems too long, so well timed is the pacing of the story and the pauses for understanding the interior aspects of each character's mind. This is a haunting film, unusually fine in every detail. It deserves, and demands, attention. Grady Harp, February 08

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review by . April 10, 2009
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review by . May 22, 2008
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About the reviewer
Grady Harp ()
Ranked #97
Grady Harp is a champion of Representational Art in the roles of curator, lecturer, panelist, writer of art essays, poetry, critical reviews of literature, art and music, and as a gallerist. He has presented … more
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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 ...

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Director: Andrew Dominik
Screen Writer: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen
DVD Release Date: February 5, 2008
Runtime: 160 minutes
Studio: Warner Home Video
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