For Your Consideration: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Picture courtesy of wallcoo.net

By Eric Hilliker

Looking for something new and interesting to read or watch? Well, I’m here to help. For Your Consideration will take a look at some movies and books that will hopefully pique your interest. So, head down to Mechanicville Public Library to pick it up or use their system to order it for pick up. You won’t be disappointed.

Everyone is familiar with the western. From the larger-than-life heroes of John Wayne to the gritty coolness of Clint Eastwood, these images and concepts are very familiar to most. This is what separates Andrew Dominik’s underseen The Assassination of Jesse James from the others. Dominik’s film does not follow the same western tropes. Instead, it presents as a psychoanalytical, epic tragedy that showcases the downfall of a legend and the man who tried to create his own.

Those looking for your typical western will surely be disappointed. Dominik shifts the focus from action to characterization, choosing to meticulously peel back the layers of one of the most well known outlaws and his unsavory gang. Dominik combines historically accurate realism with an undercurrent of the fantastic. The end result is a haunting, beautiful tale, thanks to the usual outstanding cinematography of Roger Deakins. Dominik blends the pettiness and ugliness of the the end of Jesse James with the grand proportions of a tall tale.

Since it’s a movie that holds such a strong focus on the characters, it’s great that Jesse James boasts such an impressive cast. Of course, what propels this movie is the two leads, Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James in quite possibly their best, not to mention most underrated, roles.

Pitt’s Jesse James goes far beyond most performances in westerns. He’s a charismatic outlaw, a role that fits Pitt like a glove, but Pitt adds a few layers to the infamous criminal. In a film that concerns itself with the battle of legend and reality, Pitt’s James is one that is falling apart due to his own notoriety that has built up around him. He carries a magnificent, horrifying gravitas whenever he’s in the room with the rest of the cast. People cower at the mere sight of him but Pitt is able to show the cracks of James’s sanity, a man barely keeping himself together, one that is being crushed by the legend he has created. Pitt wonderfully plays up the paranoid angst of Jesse James. One minute your best friend, the next a monster that would slit his best friend’s throat.

Even though Pitt overshadows an impressive ensemble, his assassin holds his own. Affleck is able to bring a wide-eyed naivety to Ford, who’s in awe when surrounded by the heroes he grew up reading stories about. Affleck’s naivety, though, begins to melt away as Pitt’s sanity slips. Hero worship turns to jealousy. Affleck plays the polar opposite of Pitt. Definitely not carrying the same weight as Pitt. Instead, Ford seems to be always in a state of tense claustrophobia which Affleck wonderfully plays up with childish outbursts and his fidgeting. One of the most outstanding aspect of this film is Affleck’s tragic fall from sympathy. A man who was once over his head turns to a petty quest for stardom. Ford transform from starstruck boy to a man who has transformed himself into a footnote in another man’s legacy.

Beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, it is a shame that The Assassination of Jesse James was a much overlooked film when it was first released. Make sure to correct that. Go watch Dominik’s wonderfully brutal spin on the western.

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