The western bio-pic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the final recommendation from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book following my screening of The Wild Bunch.
A beautiful and bleak film, the picture stars Brad Pitt, as the legendary outlaw, with Casey Affleck as his assassin.
The real take away I got from this film is that you should never meet your heroes (though I’ve met a few, and it didn’t go badly at all).
Based on the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, the haunting film, featuring a delicate, and engrossing narration by Hugh Ross follows the final days and ultimate betrayal of Jesse James.
Affleck’s Ford has spent his life idolising James, and is eager to prove his worth and join Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) alongside his own brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell) in the infamous gang.
Both Pitt and Affleck turn in strong performances, and watching their relationship develop and falter onscreen is something to see. Ford is so enchanted with the idea of joining Jesse and his gang, it’s all he has dreamt about, but after joining up, he begins to resent Jesse, his fascination slowly turning to dislike and distrust.
He begins to toy with the idea of cashing in on the reward for James’ capture or death, and the film slowly winds us in to its tale, riding towards its final moments, which we know must happen. Even if people don’t know their history, they at least know the title.
The cinematography in this film is nothing short of gorgeous, featuring some beautiful work by Roger Deakins (the singular shot of the train arriving is iconic and beautiful). It is accompanied by a gentle and haunting score by Nick Cave.
Western fans going into this film may be disappointed, as it doesn’t feature showdowns, and gunfights, some of the staples of the classic western. Instead, the film seems drenched in a realism that has only been hinted at by looking at daguerreotypes of the time.
Each man had fears, loves, worries. These weren’t some stetson wearing antiheroes, but real people with aches, and history, driven by mortal needs, and selfish desires.
Pitt brings his characterisation to life with seemingly wonderful ease, making Jesse a study in duality; a family man one moment, a menacing threat not afraid to beat a child the next.
Despite the title of the film, James’ murder is not the climax of the film, as I had suspected, but does in fact, follow Ford through to the end of his own days, including some of the fame he garnered from the murder.
A beautifully crafted film, this one, clocking in at over two and a half hours isn’t for everyone, but will engage cinephiles who love the craft, and manner of storytelling that film provides.