Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Welcome to a new installment of WHY HAVEN'T I SEEN THAT?, where we talk about a must-see or iconic movie that we have never seen...until now. This week we review the 2007 biopic western THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES.

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, and the second project from writer/director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James is about exactly what the title says it's about. The first half of the film follows the famous outlaw, played by Brad Pitt, over the final seven months of his life, beginning with the James Gang's final train robbery at Blue Cut, Missouri, in September 1881, to his death in April, 1882. The second half is focused on the years following the event, as Jesse James grew into a figure of legend, while his killer, Robert Ford, became a figure of contempt.

From the very beginning it's clear that the film is not out to ultimately change the way these two men are remembered. The film's full title is The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, and it opens with a brief prologue, given in voice over, of how Jesse James was living his life as he approached middle age. While mostly sticking to the facts, the prologue allows itself a small amount of mythological eulogy for the film's hero: "Rooms felt hotter when he was in them," we're told. "Rain fell straighter. Clocks slowed." The thing that grabs me about this prologue is that Jesse James is never mentioned by name. He is only referred to in the pronoun "he", except when we're told that he was known in Kansas City, Missouri, by the assumed name Thomas Howard, and Hugh Ross's wonderful voice-over narration makes that pronoun sound as though it should be capitalized, as it is in the Bible when referring to God. It should be obvious that the person being talked about is Jesse James, but a lesser movie would have worked to make that fact plain, and I appreciate that Assassination resists the temptation.

This is probably my favorite non-blockbuster performance from Brad Pitt, which is to say that I think comparing this performance to his turn as Fight Club's Tyler Durden, for just one example, would be a case of apples and oranges. I've noticed that watching an actor perform in a film meant to attract Oscar attention, as Assassination was, compared to the performance they might give when box office returns are the goal, is rather like watching how someone behaves around their family as opposed to their friends. They may act like two different people. Pitt plays Jesse James as unpredictable and indefinable. While the scenes with Jesse are some of the film's slowest, they're never boring. This is one of the performances I will remember Bradd Pitt by, after his career has ended.

Robert Ford, meanwhile, is given complexity of his own, with the film going to lengths to show that there's more to know about the man than the label hung on him in posterity, "The dirty little coward who shot Mister Howard." Casey Affleck plays Ford as a Jesse James fanboy, a proto-geek in an age long before geekery was even a thing. Ford collects Jesse James memorabilia, and memorizes trivia about about the man, down to the size of boot Jesse wears. Ford sets out on the Blue Cut train robbery with the James brothers in an effort to impress his hero, but is disillusioned when he learns that the man he read about and idolized since boyhood is not the man as he really is.

The chain of events that lead to James and Ford's moment with destiny starts with a small thing, as it often does in movies of this kind. I had to watch the movie twice to catch where it begins at all. I won't spoil it, though it does spring from Ford, and his older brother, Charlie, choosing sides in a feud between two of their fellow James Gang associates, and then trying to hide the result from Jesse for the course of the film. Whether or not Jesse knew what really happened, or only just suspected, we will never know. But the steadily mounting tension brought on by this prolonged deception, and the knowledge that the whole affair could have easily been avoided, paints James's death as a sad and unfortunate thing, which is clearly the point.

The events of that scene, which ends with Jesse James' death, comprise most of my problems with the movie. Up to that point, the film has gone to pains to paint Jesse James as possessing a preternatural, perhaps even supernatural, awareness of things. But what inspires Jesse to intentionally disarm and drop his guard in that particular moment, giving Ford the opportunity to shoot, is not communicated well. It's still a powerful scene, and the film picks right up again after the shot is fired, but I confess I don't fully understand it.

The second half of the film is no less compelling, as we watch Robert Ford go from being seen as the hero who put paid to a notorious murderer, to the miserable wretch who shot an American legend in the back. Ford had sought his own notoriety -- "I believe I'm destined for great things", he tells Jesse at one point -- and when he couldn't find it by association with a famous outlaw, he tries to parlay an act committed out of fear into his path to fame. But after that fame fades, Ford is left with the knowledge that he has killed his boyhood hero. We can argue about how well Affleck portrays Ford as he tries to move forward with his life, saddled with that realization, but I'm prepared to give him a pass. I don't think anyone really understands what it's like to be guilty of a thing like that, except those few who've actually done it.

The Assassination of Jesse James may be "Oscar-bait", but it shouldn't be dismissed for that. The performances are excellent, and the score by Nick Cave adds to the film's mythological qualities, adding ominous weight or melancholy to a scene as required. This film is technically classified as a western, but this is more out of necessity than anything. This is just a really good historical drama, and not to be missed.

The Assassination of Jesse James is rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.

Robert's Score: 8.5 / 10

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