If only Clint Eastwood was Jesse James, then I think the story would have been different.
As the charismatic and unpredictable Jesse James (Brad Pitt) plans his next great robbery, he wages war on his enemies, who are trying to collect the reward money – and the glory – riding on his capture. However, his plans are all interrupted once he becomes entangled in a friendship with his admirer Robert Ford (Casey Affleck).
It’s very bold to have the climax of your film in the title, no matter how true it is, but I was still so surprised to see that James does in-fact actually die in the end. Maybe, just maybe I didn’t pay enough attention in history class, but for some reason, I didn’t believe that he was going to get killed at the end. Oh, I guess that was a spoiler.
This was the second flick from Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik and it’s pretty obvious where he gets his inspiration of movie-making from, and that is Mr. Terrence Malick. Honestly, if I had no idea who the director was before-hand, I would have easily gone with Malick because every single little detail about this film is so perfect and beautiful that you really can’t take your eyes off of it one bit and I know that’s said about a lot of films but that is really meant here. Dominik focuses the camera on these long, sweeping shots of beautiful farmland where it almost feels like you’re there in the 1880’s with Jesse James and Robert Ford. Every shot is handled carefully, with just the right amount light and color added to it, to get you involved with the stark wilderness that these characters surround themselves with. There is just so much to look at here that you almost forget to pay attention to the story that’s at-hand, which is a total bummer, because this story can really grab you if you give it the attention that it deserves.
What I liked about Dominik, was that aside from his beautiful art direction, he was able to make a genuinely tense and unpredictable story out of a fact-based history lesson, and always being able to surprise us. Not everything about this story that Dominik tells us is true and he probably takes some liberties here and there, I definitely know that, but everything before the actual “assassination” itself, kept me on the edge of my seat and I like how Dominik was able to do that with his deliberate slow pacing. Yeah, this film is one hell of a slow-burner for sure, but it works as it develops each and every character in this story more and more, and also keeps you guessing just when the hell Jesse James is going to show-up, or better yet, when the hell he is going to get killed. May sound like a complaint but it’s not, mainly because Dominik is able to take his time with the story.
Anybody expecting a Sergio Leone-type Western, where it’s just constant gun-battles, witty one-lines, and a whole bunch of spaghetti style art thrown at the wall here, are really going to be in for a big surprise with this film, but have no fear, it still does have enough violence to hold anyone over. Actually, whenever the violence did rarely show-up on the screen, it felt deserved and made sense to the story but also felt realistic in a way that these people are actually dying from real-life bullets and whatnot. I don’t want to dive any farther into the violence and murders that go down in this flick, but I just want to say that they feel realistic and are handled well without being over-exploitative of it’s dark, violent side.
If there was a certain aspect to this flick that seemed to have bothered me the most here, was that it was over 2 hours and 40 minutes and it didn’t need to be that way. See, the first and last act are all dedicated to just James and Ford being around one another but in between all of that is a whole bunch of other characters that were apart of James’ gang that don’t really seem all that needed for this story to work, but are left in there just to add some character development. Usually, I would give some points to any director who can do this and do it as well as Dominik is able to do here, but it takes away from the story and really had me annoyed since those scenes with Ford and James can get so damn tense. Most of the characters were interesting enough to hold my interest, but I just sort of wanted to get down to the real business at-hand here.
Brad Pitt as Jesse James is a perfect bit of casting because Pitt is able to play up all of the sides of him that he has as the iconic figure. Every time James shows up in the story, whether or not to start some trouble or “go on a walk”, it’s always tense and unpredictable to the point of where you don’t know what this character is going to do next. From everything I heard and read about, James was one violent son of a bitch and one that couldn’t be contained because of his wits and determination for violence when needed. This is an idea that Pitt plays up perfectly, giving us a very iconic figure to begin with but also show something else that lies deep down inside of him. We get to see a lot of scenes where James lays out all of his emotions and how painful he feels with the life that he’s living and it’s not only an easy way to get us to care about him even though he’s killed over 17 people in his life, but also a great way to show some insight into an iconic figure that so many people feel like they know.
Pitt’s great, but Casey Affleck is just about as perfect playing opposite of him, as Robert Ford. Affleck plays the little boy-version of Jesse James, as he is constantly made fun of by his family and treated like he doesn’t know shit about shooting guns and robbing banks/trains. Eventually, this guy starts to show more emotions rather than this very shy and awkward young kid that just wants to be “one of the guys”, and the way Affleck plays it all up works perfectly for this very easy, yet hard to sympathize with character.
You also begin to realize that Ford is a character that seems like he tries so hard to want to be like James, that in the end, even when he has done all of the dirty work he could do to get rid of him, he still can’t reach the type of fame that his predecessor once, and still has. It’s a sad idea that makes you think more about Ford and realize just how strong of an actor Affleck is. This character is complex and Affleck shows that and when it’s just him on-screen, he’s amazing but when it’s just him and James messing around with one another, then it just gets even better. Surprised that this Ford dude didn’t end up killing everybody in sight by how much he got picked on. Poor Affleck. At least you got the Oscar nomination over Pitt. Suck on that Jesse!
As for the rest of the star-studded cast, they’re all pretty good too even though a lot of their roles/characters are featured more than they needed to be. Jeremy Renner is vicious and unforgiving as Wood Hite, the cousin to Jesse James; Paul Schneider is awesome as the womanizing crook that every lady seems to fall for; Sam Rockwell has a lot of fun as Ford’s big bro, Charley, but also shows a dark side to him as well by the end; and Sam Shepard is pretty freakin’ awesome as Frank James, and does an outstanding job with the short amount of time he actually gets on-screen. The ladies in this flick are sort of put on the back-burner but both Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel do splendid jobs with their roles, even though I felt like they could have had more input into this story. Then again, I just wanted to see a mono-e-mono battle between Ford and James.
Consensus: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may run on very, very long but features some of the most beautiful images caught on film with its detailed direction from Andrew Dominik, insightful story about these larger-than-life iconic figures, and a bunch of superb performances from everybody involved, especially Casey Affleck in a way you have never seen him before.