The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford Review
Film review by John White
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 by Mike Sutton
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a stunningly beautiful, piercingly intelligent film which cries out to be seen on the biggest cinema screen possible. Given it's disastrous box office performance, many of us have been forced to wait for DVD to experience it and the good news is that Warner Brothers have produced a very nice disc.
The image is framed at the original Scope ratio of 2.40:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. The film is a difficult one to transfer, relying heavily on darkness, smoke and the frequent deliberate blurring of the edges of the frame. Considering these challenges, this is a very good picture indeed, offering loads of fine detail and some absolutely gorgeous colours - the steely cold of the early exteriors is just as strong and true as the autumnal warmth of later scenes. The scnes which have been lit by available light are also lovely to behold. I didn't notice any artifacting problems or edge enhancement. There is an entirely acceptable fine grain present throughout.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is also impressive. The dialogue is mostly front and centre with the surrounds coming into play for ambient effects and the lovely music score. The sub is rarely used but does register, as you'd expect, during the brief moments of violence. The narration is suitably dominant and sounds great.
The only extra feature is on the second disc, a documentary which lasts about thirty minutes and has been given an entire DVD to itself. It's not bad, looking at the historical facts about Jesse James and Bob Ford, but it's still quite superficial and far too short to offer any memorably insights. More interesting is the making-of footage included along with some comments from the cast and crew.
The film has optional subtitles and there is also an audio descriptive track.
This is a marvellous piece of cinema, indebted to Westerns from days gone by - The Searchers is explicitly referenced, the feel of Heaven's Gate is vividly present, the omnipresent impact of the Civil War is central and you'll find many a nod to Sam Peckinpah - while successfully becoming something quite unusual in its mixture of poetry, savage irony and gritty realism. I loved every minute of it but those who are not quite so enamoured with the genre as myself might possibly find the slow pace and self-conscious image making off-putting. However, everyone should give it a try and this R2 disc from Warners is a good way of doing so.