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September 08, 2007

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (*****)
directed by Andrew Dominik

For reasons known only to me, a film junkie, a lover of the American western, I could not get “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” out of my mind – not while watching another movie, not in the evening as I sat down to write, and not this morning when I awoke. The film has seared itself a spot on my brain, I think forever.

There is something contradictory about the great westerns because the genre itself seems so simple. Yet that simplicity is misleading because the best westerns, those that challenge us as people are complex and powerful, asking moral questions that are often difficult to answer.

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in “The Searchers” is a deeply troubled man, forever raging, yet full of love for his family, for his kin, which leads him on a six year search to find his niece, kidnapped by Indians and now being raised as one of them. To our horror we come to realize that Ethan is not searching for the girl to bring her home but to kill her as he considers her to have been defiled by the Indians he so despises. We see Ethan's hatred throughout the film, shooting buffalo for no reason other than he believes a few Indians may go hungry because of his actions, or charging into an Indian camp in the hopes they will kill the white girl. Yet when he comes face to face with Debbie, who fears him, he lifts her up into his massive arms as he did when she was a child, sweeps her tight to his body and whispers to her, “Let’s go home Debbie.”

The last thing Ethan expected to find on this quest was his humanity, yet that is precisely what he finds looking into the terrified eyes of his sole family member. Should we hate Ethan for what he was going to do, or take him into our hearts for what he did?

In Ford’s classic film we recognize that Ethan will not join the community he brings Debbie back to, as he is forever an outsider, a wanderer not unlike his Indian enemies. When the film ends it is Ethan's unpredictability we cannot shake, that knowledge that he may kill at any given moment.

Though John Wayne won an Oscar thirteen years later for “True Grit,” the greatest performance he ever gave was in “The Searchers,” followed closely by his final work as a cancer ridden gunslinger in “The Shootist.”

Brad Pitt brings that same sort of inner rage, that unpredictability, to his performance as Jesse James in this new film. Ever watchful eyes, taking in everything in the room, it is a small detail that never leaves you while watching the film and obviously, for me after. There air seems to go out of the room when Jesse walks in, as all eyes are on him but often for all the wrong reasons. His growing paranoia leads those around him to wonder when they will get on his bad side and end up dead – even when delivering praise there seems an under current of anger that frightens the person being praised.

By all accurate historical accounts of James, Brad Pitt seems to deliver an astonishing performance of great authenticity, disappearing under the skin of the character moments after the film begins. There is no trace of Pitt during the film, he is Jesse James, inhabiting the skin and finding the dark soul of this celebrity.

Casey Affleck is equally fine as Robert Ford, the bullied and picked-on little brother who worships James and cannot quite believe his good fortune at being near the outlaw. In fact this worship borders on being psychotic behavior. Speaking in a high pitched, reedy voice, an odd smile springing to his face, easily shamed, this is not a man you would want in your party with a gun at your back. We understand why he kills James, but so charismatic is Pitt’s performance that we do not want him to die, and Ford discovers, too late, that neither did he.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a masterpiece, a brilliant film that will be remembered for years to come, though I am not sure if audiences today will find the film as masterful as I did. It unfolds at a leisurely pace, unhurried, and is much more of a character study than most westerns dare to be. The director makes demands on his audience, perhaps confusing them with some of his choices in lighting and cinematography, blurring the edges of the frame from time to time, perhaps to suggest how history has blurred the legend of James, elevating him to near-mythical proportions. Hopefully it will be recognized that he has done something new, something fresh and bold, something that goes far beyond the standard mainstream fare being dumped on audiences these days. And that is something worth celebrating.

I intend to try and see the film again today, and will be first in line when it opens in theatres in a few weeks. It is utterly astonishing and may be the year’s best film.


I felt the same, I refer to to the first paragraph, I couldn't get it out of my mind either, but now the wonderful cinematography is still with me.

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