The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a.k.a. “L' Assassinio di Jesse James per mano del codardo Robert Ford,” “El Asesinato de Jesse James por el cobarde Robert Ford,” “Mordet på Jesse James av ynkryggen Robert Ford,” “El Asesinato de Jesse James,” “L' Assassinat de Jesse James par le lâche Robert Ford,” “O Assassinato de Jesse James pelo Covarde Robert Ford,” “I Dolofonia tou Jesse James apo ton deilo Robert Ford,” “Die Ermordung des Jesse James durch den Feigling Robert Ford,” “Jesse Jamesin salamurha pelkuri Robert Fordin toimesta,” “Korkak Robert Ford'un Jesse James suikasti,” “Kukavicko ubistvo Dzesija Dzejmsa od strane Roberta Forda,” “The Assassination of Jesse James”
Reviewed by: Keith Howland
Western, Action, Drama, Adaptation
2 hr. 40 min.
Year of Release:
September 21, 2007 (limited)
DVD release: February 5, 2008
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In September 1881, nineteen-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) comes face-to-face with the idol of his youth: Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) have been robbing banks and trains for fifteen years. Their escapades have been recounted in many florid paperbacks, which Robert Ford has grown up reading. Now the world-renowned outlaw is preparing to rob a train in Glendale, Missouri, and Robert and his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) get to join the robbers. All that Robert has read and daydreamed about is about to come true for him. He can ride with Jesse James—be just like Jesse James.
In April 1882, Robert Ford shoots and kills Jesse James. This is not giving away the climax of this film. Its title does that (for those who do not already know this historical fact, so often repeated in films, books, ballads, and articles). This film tells how one teenager’s emulation of a living legend turns to betrayal; how the lust for fame leads to an act of brazen cowardice; and how people create the shadows that haunt them.
The protagonists of this film are thieves and murderers. Therefore, the film’s content is almost necessarily offensive. There are scenes of explicit violence, although they are not gratuitous but depicted with nearly documentary naturalism. (Still, they are rightly disturbing.)
There are also gratuitous scenes containing dialogue of an overtly sexual nature, and some bodily exposure.
On the surface, the film presents a parable of “those who live by the sword die by the sword.” But it also presents a cautionary tale of misguided adoration, as Robert Ford’s fan-boy obsession with Jesse is revealed to be foolish and unfounded. This is a fitting commentary on the rabid fan obsessions of many in our culture today, who zealously follow the exploits of movie, sports, or pop music stars. Or even on the pursuits of those who seek that stardom for themselves, on shows such as “American Idol”. As with the ill-fated Robert Ford, all such idolatry and pursuit of celebrity are misguided and unfounded. There is but one man worthy of adoration and emulation in all of history: Jesus Christ, the God-man. In him alone is peace, joy, and rest. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life. (See Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 11:28; John 14:6; 1 Peter 1:3-9, etc.)
The content of this film restricts it to adults, but teenagers would likely be bored with it anyway, because the film is a character study, not a shoot-‘em-up. As such, the film is very well made. It is far better than if it tried to be an action film or to surprise the viewer with its well-known events. Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, the film creates a great deal of tension, not from unexpected plot twists, but from how people’s perceptions of each other create distrust, fear, and anxiety.
The performances are uniformly excellent (Casey Affleck is nominated for an Academy Award), as is Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography (also nominated). Unusually, for a fiction film today, the film is narrated (by Hugh Ross), but this adds to the verisimilitude of the proceedings, and lends the film even greater historical credibility. Some of the facts of the events are so curious as they are, that no embellishment could improve on them.