THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
US, 2007, 154 minutes, Colour.
Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary- Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Michael Parks, Ted Levine.
Directed by Andrew Dominik.
The Assassination is a fine piece of filmmaking. It is a Western, but not in the Hollywood vein.
It is based on a novel by Robert Hanson, read by Andrew Dominic who was intrigued by it and, as an Australian and an outsider to the American West, was an interesting choice to adapt the novel and to direct the film. The film is quite epic in its length and narrating of the legend of Jesse James - without going back into the past but rather focusing on the last year of Jesse James’ life.
The film is unlikely to be a big commercial success. It is far too serious for many of the multiplex audiences, despite the presence of Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The film is also strong in its breakthrough performance for Casey Affleck as Bob Ford. Affleck was in the background of a number of films including the three Ocean’s films as well as Gus van Sant’s ‘Jerry’ with Matt Damon. He was then to appear in his brother’s first film as director.
The film is on a large screen but rather dark in its presentation of life in the American West, especially in Missouri in the 1880s. The seasons are Autumnal and Wintery, the countryside is bare or under snow. The towns are rather bleak, especially the new houses in what were to become the suburbs of the cities of Missouri.
The film does present some action, opening with the last train robbery performed by the James brothers and their gang. By this time, after 15 years of activity since the end of the Civil War and their fighting for the south, most of the early partners in the robberies were in jail or dead. They now have a new group of men, especially the Ford brothers. Bob Ford, very young, tries to persuade them to take him on - and he finally becomes a companion for Jesse James.
The film shows the respectable life that Jesse James lived as Thomas Howard in the cities - although he and his wife and family were continually on the move. Something was happening to Jesse James, a mental condition - perhaps psychopathic in his early years, a depression setting in, an even more determined cruelty to destroy those whom he thought were betraying him as well as a seeming resignation, at least in this plot outline, that Bob Ford should kill him.
Brad Pitt gives a very fine performance showing the deterioration in the character and psyche of the outlaw. Casey Affleck leads a very strong supporting cast including Sam Rockwell as Charlie Ford, Mary Louise- Parker as Zee, Jesse James’ wife, a cameo by Sam Shepherd as Frank James, Jeremy Renner as one of the gang.
While the film does supply a long look at the way that the James brothers did their robberies, the main part of the plot is Jesse tracking down the various members of the gang, suspicious of them, destroying those he thought were betraying him, finally confronting Bob Ford.
The film is interesting in its movie history of the James brothers, silent films and those of the 30s emerging at the end of the 30s with Tyrone Powel as Jesse James and Henry Fonda as Frank James who also appeared in The Return of Frank James. This was the period of presenting many of the outlaws including Robert Taylor as Billy the Kid. During the 1940s and 50s there were some small budget films focusing on these outlaws and their exploits including ‘I Killed Jesse James’. By the 1970s, there was a demythologising of the American West in such films as ‘Doc’ and ‘Dirty Little Billy’, deconstructing the myths of Doc Holiday and Billy the Kid. But, by the end of the 70s, Walter Hill made an epic, ‘The Long Riders’, with the various sets of brothers in the outlaw gangs including the James brothers, the Fords, the Youngers.
In the 1990s and the years following there was some kind of glorifying of the outlaws again. This film takes audiences back to the demythologising.
With Andrew Dominic as director, there will be many theses written about the comparison between the psychotic criminal, Mark “Chopper” Reed, the subject of Dominic’s first feature film and award winning film for Eric Bana as Chopper and Brad Pitt’s performance as the psychotic killer, Jesse James.
1.Jesse James: the reality, the myths? Demythologising? His impact in the 21st century? American audiences? Worldwide audiences? The James gang, the Fords?
2.The scope of the film: length, photography, muted colour, the sets, 1881-82, the 1890s, the Nick Cave score, Nick Cave singing?
3.Missouri in the 1880s, Colorado in the 1890s? The use of the locations, the re-creation of the western towns, the isolated farms, the suburbs of the growing towns, the theatres, saloons? Realism – heightened?
4.The title, the movie tradition of films about Jesse James? As hero? As villain?
5.The length of the film, based on the book by Ron Hanssen? The western tradition? The anti-western? A focus on characters? A bleak portrait? The end of an era? Jesse James as a myth in his time? The theatre performances after his death – especially by Robert Ford?
6.The information, the James gang and their robberies from 1865 to 1881, the raids, the train robberies, Frank James and his influence, Jesse and his participation? The background of Jesse James’ wife and family? The number of murders that he committed? Jesse James at the end, his age, experience, family, reputation? His cover and calling himself Howard, man of business, at home, his wealth?
7.The last robbery, Frank and the distance between himself and Jesse? The new members of the gang, the old members dead or in prison? The individuals, the Fords? Robert Ford and his place, the plan for the robbery, waiting, the execution of the robbery, blocking the tracks, stopping the train, the guards and the safe, Jesse’s brutality, robbing the passengers? Leaving? The glimpse of Frank James?
8.Robert Ford, his age, his brother, talking with Frank at length, Frank’s reaction, meeting Jesse, trying to ingratiate himself, studying him, knowing all about him, having Jesse on a pedestal? Jesse’s reaction, taking a shine to him, allowing him to participate in the robbery, in the rest of the gang’s action?
9.The aftermath of the robbery, Frank disappearing, the split amongst the group, the various friends and their alliances, the differences, the issue of the reward for Jesse James, meeting, riding, talking, hiding? The role of the Fords? Loyalties and disloyalty?
10.Jesse at home, his wife, the children, the various moves, the danger? His moving around, getting information, checking on the men, the issue of the reward, his becoming paranoid, his relationship with the Fords, on edge, the lies, following the men, confronting, killing? The Fords and their reaction?
11.Jesse James’ character in his final years, the background of psychopathic or sociopathic behaviour? His age, depression, paranoia, the questions, his smile, listening, shooting? Travelling with the Fords?
12.Robert Ford, his age, with the gang, his relationship to his brother, imitating Jesse, Jesse and the pursuit, his working in the store, the escape? His being spurned? His self-image, his friendship with Jesse, the discussions with the authorities, the build-up to the killing?
13.The older Ford, his character, in the robberies, loyalty, his talking, on edge, with Jesse, joking, travelling, the climax?
14.The other members of the gang, their personalities, friendships, turning each other in, the havens, the deaths?
15.The effect on Robert Ford, his talking with the authorities, the possibilities, the pressure, his brother, following Jesse – the build-up to the assassination, Jesse looking in the mirror – tacit consent for Ford to shoot him or not?
16.The funeral, the photos, Jesse James in state? The papers? The photographers?
17.Robert Ford and the authorities, performing around the countryside, the audiences, the reactions, the west, the young woman and the singer in the saloon, his relationship with her, his life going downhill? His death? His reputation as a coward?
18.The film as a demythologising of the western outlaws? The fact that Jesse James is still remembered – as different from the coward, Robert Ford?