It seems that after a drought of westerns, Hollywood saw fit to spawn several in 2007. While The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t a straight up western in the same sense as 3:10 to Yuma, it tells the tale of one of the Wild West’s most famous heroes, his escapades and eventual death. On top of detailing James life, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford focuses almost more on Robert Ford and his feelings toward the man as well as what happened before, during and after the fateful trigger pull.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford recounts the latter half of outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) life, after he and his brother Frank James (Sam Shepherd) robbed their last train together in Blue Cut. Despite their eventual separation from one another, Jesse planned to continue the “family business” and continue robbing, even planning out several intricate bank heists with his new partners of Charles (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). As time wore on, Jesse became increasingly paranoid of the Ford’s and when all but a few of the bandits responsible for the Blue Cut robbery were captured, Jesse began to realize that his paranoia was warranted.
I will say from the start that I was eagerly anticipating this film; I’ve recently seem to be put on a kind of western kick and have loved the past few films I’ve watched and was expecting The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to fulfill every desire I had. On a technical level the film met every one of my expectations but I didn’t take into account the films run time. I’m well adjusted to movies running nigh three hours in length, but even The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tested my patience after awhile. The films biggest flaw, if it were to have any, was the pacing the film had, although by the end of the film you begin to appreciate the long and drawn out nature of the film, when you begin to watch it for the first time you may find your mind wandering.
Now I don’t want it to sound like I’m some impatient person that can’t enjoy a film filled with beautiful scenery, superb writing and excellent acting, but it’s hard to deny that the film didn’t begin to wear on at times. In particular the sequences with Jesse and Charles in the winter seemed to add nothing of real importance to the film, as we never get a real sense of the two having any kind of strong interaction with one another. Charles will make a quip or inquire and Jesse will only stare him down or start with a smart reply and end the conversation. Despite Charles desire to not betray Jesse, we don’t really get a sense as to why he would share such a bond—they just really don’t seem that close.
On the other side of the coin, we’re introduced to Robert and Jesse’s relationship almost immediately. While Robert comes off as a bit too excited and eager to be a sidekick to Jesse, it quickly becomes evident why. All while he grew up Robert read of the James brother’s exploits and the adventures they had and Robert was nothing short of infatuated with him. Casey Affleck does such a great portrayal of an over eager man of 19 that is always nervous and more ambitious than his body or mind will let him be. His constantly quivering voice, inability to make any sort of believable lie pass from his lips and his constant shifting gaze make for a very satisfying portrayal of a “coward.” Indeed, more than anyone in the film, Affleck effortlessly steals the show and the film becomes more about Robert Ford on more than one occasion, rather than Jesse James.
I actually didn’t realize it until now but Jesse James role really does seem to take a back seat to the supporting cast, as we see him treated as the “big boss” and how his influence affects those that work under him, rather than seeing much of Jesse and his family life. We do get to see him interact with his children later in the film, but it’s very rare that we see him take charge in too many scenes. The sequence with Dick Liddle and the knife-to-Ford’s throat sequence were the only spots we really saw any of Jesse’s character come out, but it was enough to see why those who worked for him or betrayed him in any way feared for their lives.
In terms of action or truly exciting sequences, there weren’t any in the film that were full out gun battles. In fact, the movie may have been the quietest western I’ve ever watched; that no doubt also leads to the slow pace of the film, as there’s nothing to really break up the monotony of the walking, talking and voice over sequences. That is really the films only failure—it dwells in places for too long in spots and then either revisits them later in the film (as is the case with Jesse’s murder of Ed Miller) or we merely pass by them and never think of them again. The film is actually so long as we have to watch most of the men we were introduced to at the Blue Cut heist be either captured by the law or killed by Jesse.
Even though the film drags on, the ending of the film makes up for whatever boredom one may have felt during it. While we spend over two hours with Jesse James, it’s in the final half hour of the film we see what happens to Robert Ford during the years after the assassination. The sequence where Ford kills James is incredibly hard to watch, as you want to believe that Ford will change his mind even though history dictates that’s impossible. The murder of Jesse does ultimately paint Ford as a coward, as Jesse seemed to be testing his suspicions about the Ford boys by taking off his gun belt for the first time in years and turning his back on them to dust a seemingly particle free portrait of a horse. The shot fired by Ford rings throughout the house and it isn’t long after the shot is fired that Jesse’s wife comes in to see what the commotion is about and the Ford boys leave Jesse’s home in a haste.
It’s a really taught scene that made me wish I hadn’t cursed the slow pace of the film so much prior. Despite it having a leisurely pace from the start, the slowness helps build up the characters to such a degree that the ending to the film would have felt rushed or too flat without all of the history behind them. While I still feel some scenes or characters could have been trimmed, the hours we spend with the film prior to its expedited ending make it all that much more dramatic to witness. The film requires you to invest a few hours in it, but the payoff is well worth it.
I think what I found so remarkable about the final moments of the film is that it was almost treated as a History Channel special, with a quick summary of the spiral that Robert Ford experienced after the assassination. While he became extremely famous after the fact, his label as a coward followed him throughout life and he later divulged that he only shot him because he knew Jesse would shoot him otherwise—it was more out of fear than any real act of justice. After all, Jesse, in many ways, embodied what Ford wanted to be and Jesse on more than one occasion humored the boy and took him under his wing, so to speak. The eventual betrayal is made all the more difficult to watch because of this aspect of their relationship.
Overall if you can sustain what are admittedly a sometimes slow and eventful two hours, the final forty minutes of the film, bringing it near three hours in length, are more than worth the time spent. It’s a really great film that will no doubt be bolstered through repeat viewing. Highly Recommended.
Arriving in a single disc amaray DVD case, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford comes with a superb video and audio transfer, as well as overly simple and easy menus. The video and audio transfer nearly fills up both layers of the DVD, although no layer transition is noticed. There isn’t an abundance of surround usage in the film, given that it is dialogue driven for the most part, but there is the occasional chatter.
Aside from a mix of trailers that play before the DVD menu, there is not a single special feature on this DVD. No commentary, no making of, no nothin’. Considering the critical appraise this film received, I would have expected something, although the films transfer does eat up pretty much all the space on the disc. A second disc for some extras would’ve been nice, but I suppose we might see another edition down the line.
As is, the disc can either be Recommended for the film alone or Skipped in anticipation for a possible future re-release. Warner Home Video hasn’t ever really re-released films in two disc forms immediately after the single discs though, so it may be a few years before we see something more that surrounds The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford arrives on DVD on February 5th.