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Movie Review: The Assassination of Jesse James...

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With a title almost as long as its 160-minute running time, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of those movies that just seems destined to fail at the box office which is too bad really because if you make the time to see this movie you will be treated to a somber, revisionist Western that is both tender and violent in its portrayal of an era that is dying as surely as one of its iconic anti-heroes, Jesse James (Brad Pitt), and one of its more pathetic villains, Robert Ford (a career-best performance from Casey Affleck).

The film opens with young Bob Ford awkwardly approaching Jesse's older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and trying to secure a place in the James Gang. Frank pegs Ford straightaway as a squirrelly little shit who's not to be trusted, but with the help of his brother Charlie, Bob manages to insinuate himself into the James Gang. Affleck--whom I've never found to be a particularly compelling actor--is subtly remarkable in these opening scenes. Something as simple as the moments he chooses to look away indelibly establish his character.


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Ford, who'd idolized Jesse since childhood, eventually does became a solid member of the James Gang but its glory days have long since past. As the government and the Pinkertonsfix their eyes steadily on Jesse's death or capture, the gang begins to splinter apart and Jesse's paranoia increases with each passing day. That James would ultimately settle on--of all people--the Ford brothers as his most loyal compatriots is testament to how badly suspicion had narrowed his vision and damaged his judgement.

Director Andrew Domenick stays remarkably true to the story and prose of Ron Hansen's bookof the same title. James and Ford are rescued from the annals of mere legend and transformed into fully-realized human beings. Along with ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, Domenick creates a world that is--even in its occasional starkness--supremely visually sumptuous. The film's post-production was beset by rumors of interference from the suits at Warner Brothers, but what remains is, thankfully, detailed and rich.

The film's length and subject matter may keep the casual filmgoer away, but those souls who brave The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will find a deeply meditative film that touches not only on the lives of these men, but also on the power, danger and fear that accompanies celebrity.

Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers