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The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
cast: : Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, and Mary-Louise Parker

director: Andrew Dominik

155 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 10/10
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
Bob Dylan would sing "Well I may look like a Robert Ford but I feel just like a Jesse James" (Outlaw Blues), but in this film Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, Ocean's Thirteen) takes his similarities to his hero Jesse James (Brad Pitt, Troy, Babel) for something of greater significance. He tells Jesse's brother Frank (Sam Shepard, Black Hawk Down) that he feels destined for great things; for Frank's part Ford just "gives him the willies."

With the original members of the James/ Younger gang either dead or in prison, Jesse and Frank use a mix of relatives like Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner, 28 Weeks Later), and opportunists like the Ford brothers Bob and Charley (Sam Rockwell, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), for the train robbery, which proves to be their final job.

Jesse and Frank become estranged; Jesse attempts to live with his head down as a member of the local community with Robert Ford in constant attendance. Jesse is prone to paranoid fears of discovery, which are proved legitimate when other members of the gang are seized; maybe Jesse has given them away. Gradually, Ford becomes disillusioned with his hero and accepts a commission from the authorities to take him, but Jesse is on his own quest, and suspecting imminent betrayal by the remaining members of the gang he is hunting them down one by one.

There is little glamour to the life of the outlaw who came to be portrayed as a romantic Robin Hood of the prairies. He is shown as a devoted if distant family man and as a violent psychopath. If the exploits of the James gang were a continuation of the Civil War by other means there is little evidence here.

In a film laced with motifs, the characters sneak up on each other. Bathing in a tin tub in a field of grain Bob Ford looks up from his ablutions to find gang member Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider, Elizabethtown) observing him. Ford sneaks up on the bathing Jesse and voices his surprise that this is the first time he has seen James without his pistol, Jesse moves some articles on a chair to show that he has the weapon to hand. While lying on his bed and watching Jesse's daughter through a window Ford turns to find Jesse in the room with him. In contrast to these startling feats of stalking characters approach scenes of habitation in plain view, observed through gauzy screen doors they gradually meander across snow-filled landscapes to visit trouble or revenge on the inhabitants of isolated homesteads.

Any western that fails to take account of the landscape misunderstands the genre, and the Coen brothers' favourite cinematographer Roger Deakins lights an inhospitable territory of bleakness and foreboding. The use of soft focus for some brief early interludes seems like a mistake, but the revelation that pictures of the dead Jesse James were a bestseller as slides for home-viewing suggests that this device is used to place the action in some sort of historical context.

Brad Pitt's Jesse James is taciturn with an occasionally surfacing charisma. In exchanges that call for some witty riposte he spends long seconds thinking before supplying some commonplace observation, which his acolytes celebrate as if it was the ultimate in repartee. It is easy to see that Jesse's reality might come as a severe disappointment to Robert Ford, who has built up his image from a diet of dime novels. Ford himself is a loose cannon. When Dick Liddel and Wood Hite fall out and ineffectually blaze away at each other from close range with misfiring recoiling pistols, Ford, with his ancient sidearm, blows Wood's brains out from a sitting position from across the room. There will be no mistake when he is armed with the brand new pistol that Jesse presents him with.

After Ford carries out the deed that secures his name for posterity the film meanders to a conclusion, but it is essential to know what happens to the assassin in retrospect, and we see the stages he goes through before his own violent demise. The final image suggests he has realised the import of the notoriety that his fallen hero Jesse James came to live with and died for.

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