All Time Top-Ten Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Another instalment in my continuing project to evaluate my own all-time top ten that is always subject to review, but the following film sits firmly high in my top ten; not only for its brilliance but by creating a greater personal interest in the story of the outlaw.

If there was ever an award for the most underrated, ignored and missed movie, then The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would win the gold medal.

Released in the same year as the Oscar nominated ‘There Will Be Blood’ and Winner ‘No Country for Old Men’, just like the leading protagonist’s assailant ‘Jesse James’ (for short) was somehow ignored like a runt child, criminally overlooked when it is easily on par with the afore mentioned, better known entries.

A bleak, haunting interpretation of Ron Hansen’s novel that tells the story of the last days of the James’ gang and the infamous bandit’s cautious befriending of assailant Robert Ford.

Ford idolises the iconic James as a celebrity and as a vessel for his own notoriety, desperate for the opportunity to be part of James’ train robbing gang and prove his “grit and intelligence”, noble ‘western’ traits.

Jesse is unnerved, but curious and perhaps flattered by ‘Bob’s’ adulation; keeping him close, suspicious of his intentions, distrusting his awkwardness.

Bob takes acceptance as endorsement and a chance to ride with his greatest hero, a childhood ambition fulfilled.

Admiration turns to hate as Ford goes unrecognised for his “courage” and is teased and bullied like the family child once too often.

Brad Pitt is Jesse James, the American outlaw, both pitiful and intimidating, the Kingly leader of men whose notoriety has created national celebrity but fear and disdain amongst his band of outlaws; terrifying in his slow interrogation of perceived betrayers and melancholy in his deteriorating mental and physical health. Pale and leather faced; Pitt gives what may be his greatest performance in what has become a genuinely diverse and brilliant career.

Casey Affleck rightly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2008 is the fame hungry, hero worshipping Robert Ford; James’s would be assailant whose snaking, unnerving portrayal is genuinely prickly to watch at times. The power in his performance is that he manages to provoke all manner of emotions that question the cause for his cowardly betrayal. At times childlike, no more so in his enforced house arrest in the James residence as Jesse’s suspicions confirm his ever growing paranoia; but genuinely disturbing when giving deluded reasoning as to why he and Jesse are so comparable; raising further questions of the portrayal of Ford’s cowardliness and whether James is any less cowardly or remorseful –“he regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to”.

Pitt and Affleck are supported brilliantly by a fine cast.

Sam Rockwell plays Ford’s loyal but torn brother ‘Charley’ and Sam Shepard plays James’s older brother ‘Frank’, who recognises much earlier that the time has come to end the James gang’s perilous exploits.

Mary Louise Parker is ‘Zee’, seldom seen, but brilliant in her portrayal as the unquestioning wife of Jesse, serving unspoken notice of Bob’s intentions with a complete distrust and dispassion for her new house guest.

Jeremy Renner is ‘Wood Hite’ prominent gang member and cousin to the James brother’s and Paul Schneider is ‘Dick Liddel’ who provides some hilarity as the womanising ‘poet’.

Garrett Dillahunt is brilliant too as the unintellectual ‘Ed Miller’, who serves as a pitiful target for Jesse Jame’s growing paranoia.

Director Andrew Dominic and cinematographer Roger Deakins create a desolate, dreamlike, grassland world with diffused framed shots that provide a hazy surrealism, and views through imperfect glass windows give a distorted disconnected view on the harsh barren landscapes; with brave, definite pacing ‘Jesse James’ demands respect and audience investment. Slow it is, uninteresting it is most definitely not; no one scene is uneventful or insignificant. A masterpiece of direction and cinematography with brilliant acting and dialogue and a poetic voiceover, lifted straight from the source book that demands notable mention for narrator Hugh Ross. His smooth, harmonious tones providing what could be considered one of the greatest voiceovers that is not only relevant in describing events, but provides further intimate characterisation, in an emotionally repressed, bleak frontier world.

This is a film very much operating on it owns terms, with a clear depth of feeling devoted to it from all and notable credited producers, Ridley Scott and Pitt himself for giving the green light. It’s likely that, with a ten word giveaway title and a runtime of 160 minutes that ‘Jesse James’ was a hard sell. This proved to be the case, with a $30 Million dollar budget and a gross return of less than $4 Million from a limited screen audience, but the success of ‘Jesse James’ is its brilliance and the desire from all to ‘want’ to make it, ‘how’ they wanted to make it.

The notorious assassination of the bandit and his unexplained actions, as is the real history, remain unclear and the pseudo finale leaves the mystery intact with enough already suggested in the build-up to events to decide for oneself, with Jesse’s increasing suicidal thoughts and a struggle to find peace with himself –“Look at my red hands and my mean face… and I wonder ’bout that man that’s gone so wrong”.

In such a bleak world and a violent, nomadic existence but with a beautiful wife and family would Jesse James have viewed suicide as escape when tortured by his own demons? This work of genius leaves this question skilfully unanswered.

At two and a half hours, no doubt ‘Jesse James’ is long but the final half hour of Bob and Charley’s public moral penance is captivating and details Ford’s remorse for his pursuit of renown by his cowardly act.

‘Jesse James’ is a study of celebrity, the trappings of it and the infamy it brings; the desire to achieve fame and the struggle to get it.

Haunting, epic, bleak and brilliant are all words to describe ‘Jesse James’. Masterpiece is another that I can use without hesitation.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film for all ages, timeless in its telling of the age old story of power and desire that is as relevant today in an era of all too easy celebrity, as it was at the birth of a modern nation. Rare too in its desire to be made as intended without compromise against the backdrop of commercial success.

While pretty confident that this film in its ambition and purposeful pacing will not be everyone’s cup of tea, put some faith in ‘Jesse James’ and hopefully recognise its maverick brilliance and the crime of its Academy Award omission.

‘Claratsi rating’ 10/10

Check out my other Top-Ten films here:

5 responses to “All Time Top-Ten Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

  1. I guess I’ll be the first to say something about this one:
    I don’t think this film misses one beat. Everything about is totally in sync and harmonious. Dominik sets the mood perfectly. Great soundtrack (from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis). I think what sets it apart was the cinematography (Roger Deakins) and spectacular camerawork. Like this shot:

    I, too, would use the words “haunting”, “bleak” and “epic” to describe this film. THE AVENGERS might be big and epic, but it’s got nothing on this film. If the remake of 3:10 TO YUMA was the traditional western (and I say “traditional” because a ton of films take their queues from the traditional western) that was dressed up for today’s Hollywood, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is the throwback to the old days of Malick and MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER. This film is all mood, and it’s great.

    • ..and that’s why is sits very firmly in my top ten. there are always films that stay in many a film fan’s mind long after, Jesse James is that film for all the reasons i have wrote about and the ones you have pointed out. Great comment, glad we agree again on a film that many people still need and should see, their movie watching lives will be all the better for it.

  2. I love the Jesus out of this film and I’m so glad to see you put it high on your list as well. It’s gorgeous, it’s incredibly well acted, and I am even more happy to see you mention Hugh Ross’ narration, something I’ve argued with many people about (me loving it and seeing it as the greatest voice-over work ever, to those who found it distracting). Time and again I go back to this movie (you always have to say the full title), and I cannot understand why it hasn’t received more love and praise. I get excited just thinking about it.

    • well, I hope my review did it justice 😉 you are absolutely spot on and I will defend and support this movie to anyone for ever. It IS the best and most original narration ever for me. It’s hard to get a narration spot on but his voice, the context and the ability to not just describe events on screen is immaculate. Thanks Nick, I concur 100% 😉

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