The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Review

The Film

History is an unreliable resource for storytelling. Anyone who can pick up a pen can choose to re-tell the times they have lived through from their own rather particular perspective and distort them for their own ends. Often accounts have perpetuated lies or justified cruelty, and the stories have abided not because of veracity but due to them being ripping good yarns. Many a scholar of Black history will tell you that Abraham Lincoln was not the great emancipator, but it suits the well meaning liberalism of some for him to be portrayed in this way so that the multitude of white America has some notion of respect to cling to when considering their forefathers. In fact, the American civil war was not necessarily fought to free slaves, and the "liberators" of yore did not behave themselves impeccably after their righteous victory as well.

The story of Jesse James has been seized upon for its symbolism by many a group feeling oppressed by a majority full of patriarchy and social control. In the aftermath of the American civil war, writers used James as an emblem of standing up against injustice and righting the wrongs felt by the poor and the beaten down. In cinema, his legacy has been presented as the little man fighting big and corrupt government, but it is his demise that has provoked most celluloid. Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James dealt with the decent god fearing brother Frank, embodied by Henry Fonda, chasing the villainous assassin, John Carradine, and Sam Fuller's debut I shot Jesse James attempted to show a more tortured assassin who meets his comeuppance with a crazed humility.

Like the folk songs and the stories before them, both these films used the legends more than the facts and Andrew Dominik's Assassination Of Jesse James attempts to represent a more believable and truthful story based on more solid research. It is not really a western, after all Jesse James never was famous because he went out west, but it continues the revisionist and end of era feel of films like Unforgiven, The Wild Bunch and Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West in approaching its subject. In this re-interpreted context, Jesse James becomes a man convinced of his own invulnerability, an ego monster who will bait his enemies and who has bought into his own legend. In this reality, he is now a simple bandit whose reputation for doing good is a cover story for his prejudice and malice. He is a man who goes too far because he can, and who has been reduced to working with turncoat mercenaries and vagabonds rather than the Confederate guerillas he once bathed in the glory of.

His murderer is an even more interesting creation. A nobody who craves fame and recognition but only receives rejection and revulsion, Robert Ford is so in love with the adulation that Jesse James receives that he must have the same attention from James himself, or as the man who brought him down. Deep down, Ford knows he won't amount to anything and he has been told that Jesse's legend is all lies, but glory and posterity are what he craves as well. Come the moment of truth, he is haunted by the paranoia of being found out by the mythical James - what if James knows what's coming and is only playing with him? Paralysed by doubt, Ford needs James to help with his own demise - and undeniably he did. James would give Ford the gun he needed, unhook his own gun belt and leave his guns away from reach, and he would have to show Ford, a man he did not trust or respect, his unguarded back. This act speaks of either his utter contempt for Ford or vanity bordering on a deathwish.

Ford expects "applause" for his actions in killing his hero, and, to that purpose, tours with a stage show illustrating his courage in shooting the outlaw in the back. Soon songs are being sung about his cowardice and the fame he wants has become notoriety, and he can't be shocked when he himself becomes the target of another man wanting congratulation and posterity. Eventually, he becomes a victim of his renown much as Jesse did, but with him seen over the ages as the coward and Jesse shown as the hero.

Dominik's film is wonderfully lensed with beautiful use of Roger Deakins' photography to capture the legend and the probable fact; the deliberate softness around the centre of the screen apeing the photography of the time. Brad Pitt is twitchy, isn't he always, and charismatic as James, but it is Casey Affleck's performance which is the more remarkable as he renders a toad of a man sympathetic and understandable. Where other portrayals of Ford have opted for snake or for villain, he makes him a man trapped into a fate by his desire to escape the bullies and his own youth. When he shoots Pitt, he does it out of fear of not doing it and receiving James' wrath rather than villainy or mendacity - he simply can't do anything else if he wants to survive.

That this film died a death at the box office is disappointing and DVD and Blu-Ray give you the chance to witness an extraordinary and well accomplished work that is the last word in an old, old story. Seek out this film expecting intelligence and a convincing sense of period and character and you will be very pleased indeed.

The Disc

Warner's presentation is a disappointment with this very long film included on a BD 25 disc and sound options not being different to the existing R1 standard definition release. The extras included are a single 32 minute making of documentary, narrated by Ted Levine, which cuts together shooting of the film with the historical basis for the story. Cast and crew contribute with more knowledgeable information from historians of the time and the author of the original novel who explain Jesse James' journey from young man appalled by Union brutality to Confederate guerilla to bandit with vagabonds around him. It's a well made piece which explains the story and the basis for this tale of two men made and destroyed by reputation and legend.

The transfer would impress for a standard definition disc, but the amount of edge enhancement is disappointing with all the characters haloed, and as a result some compositions are more like layered collage with the separation of different parts in the image. The colours are strong and the golden brown tone is created well, but I did feel that the contrast was too dark at times allowing for little definition in the darkness of the train heist that starts the film. The 5.1 surround track is well mixed and has a good natural feel to it which allows the surround speakers to be used for effects where appropriate, but is not arbitrary about mixing voices across them as well. As the film is shot with front on dialogue throughout lines are spoken to camera and the audio mix makes perfect sense as largely the side and rear channels are utilised for atmosphere and music. The sub-woofer channel is strong if rarely used and this makes the moments of shooting and horse chases very resonant and effective. Overall the track is clear of any mastering or source issues and of very good quality.


A terrific movie gets a half hearted treatment and it is a missed opportunity with no uncompressed audio and the sole extra of the documentary. I rather feel that Andrew Dominik's film has been let down by Warners both here and on theatrical release, that is a pity as this is a far better motion picture than it has been given credit for.

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