The title should already give it away: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not the kind of movie you watch in order to find out what happens at the end. If that’s why you go to the movies, don’t see this film. If you tend to use the words “pretentious” and “artsy” fairly often when talking about films you didn’t like, don’t see this film. If slow equals boring when it comes to movies as far as you’re concerned, don’t see this film. If you’re hoping for gunslinging action, don’t see this film.
However, do see this film if you want to see a beautifully written and shot, psychologically fascinating, immensely atmospheric and deeply sad movie, and especially if you’re interested in good acting. Down to the last part, The Assassination has an impressively talented cast; for instance, even the few scenes that focus on Garrett Dillahunt’s Ed Miller (I’ve been a fan of his ever since watching Deadwood) tell volumes in themselves. But the film stands and falls with the two title characters, and they both carry their share of the load with distinction. I’d only seen Casey Affleck in the Ocean’s Double-Digit films, where it’s difficult to judge his acting, but his Robert Ford is a complex, riveting creation: in turn wheedling, puffed up, disturbing, pathetic, deluded, but finally truly tragic, he’s a relative of Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley. At one point James asks him: “Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” Their relationship recalls that of Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law) in Anthony Minghella’s movie, but it goes further than that. And Ford’s longing, loathing looks at Jesse James carry so much.
I must admit that I am also becoming quite the Brad Pitt fan. I used to think that he was a star, but not much of an actor – and there are films where you need stars. It was only in Babel that I recognised he could play a part that was in no way that of a movie star. In that film I forgot for the first time that he’s a pretty boy, and I saw him as the character. The star quality is back in The Assassination, but it needs to be – Jesse James is a myth, so Pitt has to portray that facet of the character – and it’s made deeper and richer by Pitt’s performance. This quasi-mythic outlaw is also a paranoid, superstitious and at times cruel and petty bastard, and he’s got a deep streak of self-loathing. When he turns his back on Ford for the last time to wipe the dust of a picture, we’re basically seeing a suicide at least as much as a murder. While James is no Christ figure, Ford is as necessary as Judas to complete the narrative – and to some extent this is because James lacks the courage himself to end it all, nor to live on. It’s by no means clear whether Robert Ford is really the coward that the title suggests.
I don’t want to go on too much, because otherwise this blog entry will rival the film in length. If you don’t mind slow, long films, if you don’t mind portentousness, if you think that the western genre can do tragedy successfully; if you don’t mind hearing the same three pieces of music repeated frequently (and they fit very well), if you don’t mind artsy choices in the photography, editing and writing. Or simply if you want to see Nick Cave hamming it up with a guitar in a Brad Pitt movie. If any of these apply, go and see the film.