The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter known simply as TAJJBTCRF) is a beautifully ponderous revitalization of one of the screen’s most popular genres. It is a western, complete with six shooters, saloons and horses, but it has more to do with the elegiac westerns of the 1970s, movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Heaven’s Gate than the recently released and action heavy 3:10 to Yuma.
TAJJBTCRF takes its time with the story of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the man whose obsession with fabled outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) led to disillusionment, fear and ultimately the assassination referred to in the title. At 2 hours and 40 minutes TAJJBTCRF may seem overlong for the casual viewer, but the unhurried pace of the piece reveals many charms for those patient enough to sit through the whole thing.
Quiet and lyrical the movie is art house all the way. Beautifully photographed (on locations in Manitoba and Alberta) TAJJBTCRF focuses on character rather than action, trying to get a grip on why Ford shot James, not how. Through the intimate performances and narration we are given insight into the character’s motivations in a way that is usually absent from films featuring strong silent types.
Pitt shines as the conflicted Jesse James, a charismatic rebel who seems to come unwound as the film goes on, but it is the performance of Casey Affleck that steals the show. His sleepy-eyed take on Robert Ford, rife with a mix of insecurity and swagger is a star-making turn.
From the autumnal hues of the cinematography to the mournful soundtrack everything about TAJJBTCRF played in a minor chord, but despite the film’s hushed tone it quietly bristles with a sense of adventure and daring all too rare in mainstream film.
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