"Dark but Gripping Portrayal"
Some movies are meant to be consumed. Some movies are meant to be experienced. And, some movies are meant to be inhabited and worn, like a suit of old, but still good, clothes.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD falls into the latter category. Though it is too long, it is a riveting, simmering character study of the famous western outlaw and the men who rode with him in his late career, including Bob Ford, the young man who shot Jesse in the back.
The movie opens in 1881 with Jesse James and his brother Frank in the Missouri woods planning their last train robbery with their new gang. Jesse and Frank’s old gang with the Younger brothers have either been killed or put into jail.
Bob Ford is the younger brother of Charley. He tries to ingratiate himself with Jesse’s own brother, but Frank just insults him. Jesse, however, is amused by Bob’s enthusiasm, though he doesn’t think he’s ready to become a ruthless outlaw like the older men.
The robbery goes off without much of a hitch, though Jesse kills one of the men guarding the mail car. The robbery just angers the state authorities, especially the new Republican governor who hates Confederate rebels like the James gang. They put renewed pressure to capture or, preferably, kill Jesse James and his gang.
In the wake of this, Jesse’s brother Frank heads back East, but Jesse becomes paranoid and moody. He starts showing up at the farms and hideouts of the rest of the gang and even shoots one of them dead in the back. Meanwhile, Bob Ford kills Jesse’s cousin, Wood Hite, when Wood comes after Dick Liddel for messing with his elderly father’s much younger wife. Bob and his brother, Charley, secretly bury Wood’s body to hide their deed from Jesse.
Bob eventually decides that it’s going to be either him or Jesse, so he conspires with the police and the Governor to kill Jesse. The rest, as they say, is history.
The acting in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is among the best this year. Both Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Bob Ford are brilliant. Affleck is especially good at expressing what he’s feeling through his eyes as he watches the moody, suspicious, often inscrutable Jesse. Sam Rockwell is also superb as Bob’s brother Charley, as is Paul Schneider as Dick Liddel and Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller.
Some critics have complained about the length and pacing of this movie. Although the movie definitely could be trimmed to make it more accessible to the average moviegoer, it rivets the attention (unless, of course, you don’t care about the subject).
Only God knows the whole truth about Jesse James and Bob Ford. Their story has been the stuff of much speculation. That said, although the Yankee authorities during the Civil War and afterwards (including Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency) often mistreated Confederate sympathizers and former soldiers like Jesse James and his family, which intensified Jesse’s animosity toward them, Jesse ruthlessly murdered people in cold blood during his criminal career, including one of the men in the second gang that he and his brother led at the end. It is also apparently true, however, that Jesse could be generous to other people who were suffering or needed a buck. Finally, it is also apparently true that, during all his train robberies, Jesse only twice stole money from train passengers. These last facts contributed to Jesse’s reputation, especially in the South, of being a newfangled Robin Hood harassing the Yankee “oppressors” and carpet baggers.
Be that as it may, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a compelling, fascinating, gripping portrayal of Bob and Charley Ford’s relationship with Jesse James. At one point, Jesse tells Bob, “I can’t figure it out. Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” This is one of the movie’s major themes, how Bob’s idolization of Jesse and Jesse’s fame turned into fear, loathing and jealousy. Bob’s brother Charley watches this transformation mostly from the sidelines. In fact, he often nervously tries to make jokes to cut the tension between Jesse and Bob when Bob’s intensity shines through his demeanor.
In portraying these events and their aftermath, the movie says that Bob’s desire for fame and celebrity in his own right does not turn out as he imagines it. Instead of being treated like a hero, he is treated like a coward and a traitor. Thus, the movie strongly suggests that Bob’s story holds a valuable lesson for those who also desperately seek fame and fortune – be careful what you wish for.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES also is a story about dishonor among thieves. Thus, a paranoid Jesse James shoots one of his gang members in the back, and a paranoid Bob Ford shoots Jesse James in the back.
All in all, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a dark psychological portrayal of historical events. It is not an uplifting movie with a strong Christian worldview, but it offers some fascinating insights into well-known, controversial figures from America’s history. It is not the final word on the subject, but it is an interesting one that deserves some major attention.
The movie also contains some very strong western violence, foul language and brief sexual references, so extreme caution is advised.
(B, PaPa, RH, LL, VVV, S, N, A, D, MM) Light moral worldview in a dark portrayal of the relationships and events surrounding a famous outlaw gang and its leader in the Wild West, plus the portrayal shows that there were some self-interested, sinful and pagan motives and desires among the gang members, and some changing of historical facts for dramatic effect; 11 or 12 obscenities, four strong profanities and two light profanities; some very strong violence with blood including two men shot dead from behind, a gunfight, men rob train, man jumps out window and hurts his foot, brief pistol whipping to the point of bleeding, and men shot in head or chest; implied adultery, man flirts with other man’s wife, and crude talk about seeing a prostitute and sex in one scene; upper male nudity; alcohol use; smoking; and, armed robbery, illegally stopping a train, dishonor among thieves, and paranoia.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD tells what happened at the end of the life of the notorious western outlaw Jesse James. The movie opens in 1881 Missouri with Jesse and Frank James planning their last train robbery with their new gang. Bob Ford is the younger brother of Charley. Bob tries to ingratiate himself with Jesse’s brother, but Frank just insults him. Jesse is amused by Bob’s enthusiasm, but he doesn’t think he’s ready to become a ruthless outlaw like the older men. After the robbery, Bob’s idolization of Jesse and his fame eventually turns into fear, loathing and jealousy while Jesse grows suspicious of everyone.
Though it’s too long, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a riveting and fascinating, but dark, portrayal of the last days of the infamous outlaw. The acting is among the best this year. Both Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Bob Ford are brilliant. Sam Rockwell is also superb as Bob’s brother Charley. The movie has a light moral worldview, but there are some dark thematic elements, foul language, strong violence, and brief sexual references.