The Assassination of Jesse James

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The Assassination of Jesse James
Review (5.5/10)
(By Liam Cullin)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells -- as the title would suggest -- the story of the assassination of Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) by the coward Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). And that's the biggest problem with this movie. You know even before the lights dim and film begins to roll just how the movie is going to end. And for a movie that runs just under 3 hours, that's a long time to wait for something you know is going to happen. So, it falls on the shoulders of the characters to make the story of what leads up to the events suggested by the title interesting. Unfortunately, the movie never really presents a truly likeable character to root for.

As the movie begins, Jesse James, his brother Frank (Sam Sheppard) and their gang (including Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider among others) are hiding in the woods waiting to rob a train in what will eventually be the James gang's final train robbery. It is here that Jesse and the coward are introduced and we see just how obsessed Robert Ford is with the legend of Jesse James. They rob the train and everyone goes their separate ways, except for Ford who Jesse asks to hang around. They begin to form an uneasy friendship and we get more of a glimpse at Ford's obsession. And we begin to question whether the obsession is with Jesse or the "idea" of Jesse. Although they soon go their seperate ways, we known that they are destined to meet each other again.

As the movie continues, Jesse grows more and more suspicious of everyone around him -- and likewise everyone around him begins to worry that they will feel Jesse's wrath before the authorities ever catch up with them. It is for this reason (although not this reason alone) that Robert Ford conspires with the police to bring Jesse James to justice.

As I said earlier, this movie had two factors against it. Knowing how the movie was going to end and not really caring for the characters that would bring about that ending. Jesse James, as portrayed by Brad Pitt, was mean, vicious and overcome by his suspicions and, although legend would have us believe that he was a likeable bandit, we see a side of him that likely wasn't written about in comics of the time. Similarly, Robert Ford was just a weasel and, as the title would suggest, a coward. The role was wonderfully played by Affleck and I'm sure (as you've likely already read) he is due some reconition for this performance come awards season, however, he was not likeable character. How could you root for the man responsible for the death of the film's hero? The remaining cast of Jesse's merry (and not-so-merry) men were well-played, but again, were nothing to get too excited about.

Continuing with my beefs, I had problems with the film's narration, photography and soundtrack. First, the narration, some of which can be heard in the film's theatrical trailer. While I can appreciate some of the facts we learn about Jesse and Ford, I was continually distracted by the fact that the voice used was very similar as the voice used in "Magnolia" starring Tom Cruise. It's like listening to a narration by James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman or the movie trailer guy - it's well done but distracting. (A quick check at IMDb reveals they are not the same narrator -- but damn they sound alike.) Secondly, the photography, particularly during the narration scenes. We see clouds (and unrealistic clouds at that) and the image on screen becomes blurred. Was this really necessary? I can understand the intention here, but it seemed a little tedious to me. It actually became quite annoying. Finally, the film's soundtrack which I found to be, at times, inappropriate. Again, I'll make comparisons to "Magnolia". It just didn't seem very Western-like.

On the plus side, I found the movie really picked up in the final twenty minutes of the film after the titular assassination. (I love the word titular.) In these final scenes, we learn about the fate of the coward, Robert Ford. Again, because we knew from the title what would happen to Jesse James, we could only wait for the inevitable. With Ford, what would happen was a mystery to me -- and it was satisfying learning how his life unfolded. If only more of the movie had been devoted to this time in his life it would have made for a more interesting tale.

In the end, I'd have to recommend waiting for this flick on DVD where you can speed through the unnecessary parts of the film before coming to the final act where it really begins to pick up. Some fine performances here, but not enough to salvage a long and drawn out story with an obvious conclusion.

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