Once prior to this release Andrew Dominik retold the story of one of Australia's most notorious criminals, Chopper. Even in that feature Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read is betrayed by a close ally. Is Dominik trying to tell us not to trust those closest to us?
It's 1881, Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) have fought for the Confederates during the 1861 - 1865 American Civil War, after defeat they continue to organise raiding parties on predominantly Unionist owned businesses. Their wild days are coming to a close and the film starts by detailing Jesse and Frank's last venture together, the robbery of a steam train. The original Younger gang have either been killed or fled and now all Jesse and Frank can rely upon are a few stragglers, one of whom is young 19 year-old Bob Ford (Casey Affleck). Frank's not enamoured with Bob though quickly tiring of his thickly sweet lauded applause.
After Frank leaves, Jesse still desires the limelight, still wants to live up to the image which has been bestowed upon him; hero of the Confederate people, villain of the Pinckertons. To these ends he recruits the services of Bob, his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and all round Lothario Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). Plans are set afoot to continue the robbery and killing spree so beloved by Jesse, however little comes of it. Everyone concerned begins to feel the days of old closing, of heroes perhaps not living up to the dime publications once read and each must watch his own back.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a wonderful piece of historical work by Dominik whose only other work was again an historical piece in Chopper. It has the financial backing of the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, and has graced some fine acing talent with Pitt, Rockwell and a brief appearance by Shepard all contributing well to this eclectic mix. Although all of these fine actors play their parts well, in particular Shepard as Jesse's older brother Frank, the rabbit out of this hat has to be the young Casey Affleck. He delivers a storm of a performance as essentially a nobody. Someone who has looked up to another all his life, someone who has lived his life in the fantasy work of dime novelisations only to find that the reality is much harsher and you are judged on your character as a man as opposed to who or what you know about others. Throughout the film, like his villainous colleagues, you become to treat Ford with the contempt he most certainly deserved, he's far too immature to cope with the events which unfold. His colleagues mock him as does Jesse and unable to cope with this lack of respect he turns inwards with veiled threats given to the outside. He cannot understand, and fails to learn, that respect is never given; it is earned. He idolises Jesse and wants some of the fame that has been, however ill placed, bestowed upon him to fall upon his shoulders as well. If he can't have that he'll find fame another way, by murdering the man he looked up to all his life. Affleck gets under the skin of this character, his facial movements, sly grin, occasional stutter, fidgeting and emotional outbursts when he can't accept a little fun or criticism all combining to produce in the end a performance certainly worthy of that supporting actor Academy Award nomination.
Pitt again produces a character we all know that he's capable of, a haunted look upon the weary Jesse still trying to keep that old flame alive. His performance shows Jesse in his true light, vicious, melancholy, delight at family but more often suspicious of those around him; always seeing if one of his gang will betray him for their own ends. Did he know, did he suspect what the end result would be? The question remains open.
Roger Deakins was at the helm of photography (loved by the Coen brothers, rightly so, and known for other great works including Kundun and The Shawshank Redemption), has bled the colour from the image and presents a glorious barren landscape of the old west, his use of light is superb, especially near the start as it streams through the woods as our anti heroes lie in wait for their on coming prey. Often shot with soft edge focus, whilst being narrated, and brilliantly shot through window glass which like the old west was not manufactured to the high standards we have today, giving the image a slightly distorted look; much like the distortion that Ford experiences from his beginnings as idoliser to later when he comes a murderer.
Throughout the film we realise that Jesse really was a cold hearted, brutal man; but as time progresses and we see Ford ingratiate himself with him we actually do feel a sense of pity that Jesse was gunned down in this way. We feel it should have been only right and proper for him to go down fighting as opposed to being shot in the back. (Note - I feel that most people would have known this!). If you or I, God forbid, come to terms with a gunman's bullet we are murdered, only dignitaries are allowed the moniker of assassination and that's exactly what we feel towards the end for Jesse, no matter what we felt at the start.
A recommended piece and coming in not shy of 3 hours but with no major gun-fights or posses to ride with will still capture your attention. The inspection of the two main characters as their relationship evolves will have you begging for more. Casey Affleck has stepped up to the plate, Ben take note!
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