Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Originally Written and Posted at on 3/4/08 w/ Additional Edits.

Based on Ron Hansen's novel, the film is about Jesse James' final years as an outlaw while planning a new robbery with his gang. Part of his gang is a man named Robert Ford who would become his assassin. Adapted into script and directed by Andrew Dominik of Chopper fame, the film is an eerie, sensitive portrait of not just James but also Ford. Playing the two leading roles are Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. With a cast that includes Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner, and Zooey Deschanel. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a harrowing yet enchanting film from Andrew Dominik and company.

It's September 1881 as Jesse James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) are about to do another train heist which would be Frank's final heist. Joining them in the Missouri forest are Ed Miller (Garrett Dillahunt), Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), Jesse's cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Charley Ford (Sam Shepard), and his 19-year old little brother Robert. Robert is enamored by the presence of the James brothers as he grew up reading stories about Jesse as he idolized the outlaw. While the heist was a modest success, Frank seemed to have had enough as he's surrounded by young men and his relationship with Jesse has become temperamental. With Jesse hiding in Kansas City with his wife Zee (Mary Louise-Parker) and their children Mary (Brooklynn Proux) and Tim (Dustin Bollinger). Frank has now decided to depart not knowing it would be the last time he would see his younger brother.

With Charley and Wood sent to hide at the home of Martha Bolton (Alison Elliott), Robert was asked to stay to help Jesse with a few things before being sent to Martha's home where he meets with his older brother along with Wood and Dick. Dick and Wood leave to live with Wood's father (Tom Aldredge) and young wife Sarah (Kailin See) whom Dick seduces. One day, Ed gets a visit from Jesse about some rumors including the men who had been captured from the previous train heist. Meanwhile, tension between Hite and Liddil came ahead as Robert found himself involved. Following that confrontation, Jesse arrives as he has dinner with Wilbur Ford (Pat Healey), Martha, Charley, and Robert as Charley tells stories about Robert's childhood where Robert was taunted by Jesse. Then all of a sudden, Robert makes a move to reveal the whereabouts of Dick Liddil to Sheriff Timberlake (Ted Levine).

Robert Ford suddenly becomes a private investigator for Timberlake as he and Liddil have a private meeting with Governor Crittenden (James Carvell). With Charley now riding along with Jesse, talks about possible robberies where in the works as Robert joins Charley and Jesse. Things become filled with tension as if Robert is believing that Jesse is aware that he's going to die at age 34. Then on April 3, 1882, Robert Ford becomes famous as he kills Jesse James at his family home. A year later, Robert Ford is known to the world but to some, he's branded as a coward. With Charley regretting about his involvement, Robert Ford finds himself troubled with this name as coward. Ten years later in Colorado, he meets Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel) as he tries to come to terms on what he had done as a man named Edward O'Kelly (Michael Copeman) hunts for him.

The story about Jesse James and his infamy is known to the world for his reckless killings of innocent people and robberies. While some might enjoy his infamy for the fact that he was a Southern who hated the politics of the time as well as rich people, he was a complex individual that some said was a modern-day Robin Hood. Yet, this film about Jesse James' final days reveal a much harrowing tale as a man who is aware that he knows that he's going to die but the question is, who will kill him? That answer comes in the form of a young man named Robert Ford. Here is a man who starts out as a young kid who worshiped the altar of Jesse James only until James' bullying and taunts get to him as he becomes this obsessed, laconic killer only to be called a coward as James' name lives on through infamy.

Andrew Dominik deserves credit for his eerie character study of the two individuals as well as the people who surround him. Jesse's elder brother Frank who seems tired of robberies as well as the young men that idolize Jesse. The members of Jesse's gang like Dick Liddil, Wood Hite, and Ed Miller who are trying to figure out Jesse's state of mind while Charley Ford is also part of that gang as he also watches Jesse's descent into madness and then seeing his brother become a public figure. The film is really a tale of madness and disintegration in the eyes of both an outlaw and his assassin. While his script unveils layers of characters and their paranoia around Jesse James, it's through his dream-like direction that is more startling.

The film's obvious influence is Terrence Malick, the brilliant yet reclusive filmmaker whose films often include naturalistic, epic images of nature, epic elliptical pacing, a narration, and poetic dialogue. Dominik clearly uses Malick's unique filmmaking style to tell this haunting story of Jesse James' final days and his encounter with Robert Ford. The film features a third-person narration by Hugh Ross that reveals part of Jesse James' state of mind in his final days and legends along with additional back story. While the narration might seem to act as spoiler of sorts, it lets the story flow easily as Dominik through his observant camera let the acting unfold. The film in a lot of ways looks and feels like a Malick film, notably his 1978 film Days of Heaven. Shot on location in Canada, the film doesn't look or feel like a Western since it's set in the American mid-west.

Dominik creates a crystalline portrait of James with very few colors and the camera sometimes being a bit blurry to convey the dream-like tone of the film. While audiences might seem to be put off by its slow pace, it is deliberate to tell its study of madness while being a film that is a revisionist western of sorts told dramatically. This is a film that clearly reveals that the western genre is starting to come back and engaging itself into new territory. The film's 160-minute running time might seem overwhelming but the result is a strong film. Yet, it should be noted that the film went through various running times and test screening meaning that Dominik didn't have final cut since it was produced by Ridley Scott and Brad Pitt. Still, the final cut of this film is superb without delving into pretentiousness as its dreamlike, laconic, haunting approach through Dominik's direction is truly one of the best films of 2007.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins creates an exquisite look to the film that isn't just similar to the wondrous, natural, dream-like cinematography of the late Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler in their work in Days of Heaven. The film also recalls the work of Vilmos Zsigmond for such films as Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Michael Cimino's film Heaven's Gate. Deakins' look of the exteriors with shots of nature and skylines are jaw-droppingly beautiful. Even the scenes in the woods and snow are shot with amazing colors and shades to convey the different moods of Jesse James and later on, Robert Ford. The interior sequences, notably the train scene are wonderfully shot with intimacy swept with sepia-like colors and tones to help convey a dream-like look. If the film has a technical highlight that is worth noting, it's the cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Editors Dylan Tichenor, Curtiss Clayton, and Michael Kahn (who did additional editing following its test screening) is superb for its sense of transitional cuts, dissolves, fade-outs, and jump-cuts to convey the film's sense of action as well as living up to its elliptical, pacing style with its 160-minute running time. Art director Troy Sizemore and set decorator Janice Blackie-Goodine do an amazing job in creating the period look of the late 19th Century mid-west with its look of towns and homes to create an American, mid-western look and feel. Costume designer Patricia Norris, who was also the costume designer in Days of Heaven, does an exquisite job in the look of the cowboys and women in 19th Century period dresses that matches the film's dark, dream-like look with very little colors. Sound designers Christopher S. Aud and Richard King do a brilliant job in capturing the atmosphere of the landscapes and shootouts as well as the land to convey the mood of Jesse James.

Another of the film's amazing technical achievements goes to the film's haunting score by alt-rock icon Nick Cave and Warren Ellis of Cave's band the Bad Seeds. The music features chime-like themes to convey its dreamlike mood while using broken pianos and instruments to help play true to the period. The score is filled with sweeping arrangements as well as pieces of music that is haunting as Cave makes an appearance singing a traditional song about Jesse James. The music of Cave and Ellis is truly superb in capturing the mood of the film and its characters.

The casting by Mali Finn is superb as the various small roles from Sarah Lind as a girlfriend of Robert Ford, Jesse Freschette as Robert and Charley's young cousin Albert, Joel McNichol as a train messenger, Lauren Calvert as Martha's daughter Ida, and Michael Parks as Henry Craig. Other memorable small parts that include Brooklynn Proux and Dustin Bollinger as Jesse's two kids, Michael Copeman as a man hunting for Robert Ford, Tom Aldredge as Major Hite, Sarah Kailin as Major Hite's young wife, Ted Levine as Sheriff Timberlake, Pat Healey as Wilbur Ford, and an appearance from political analyst James Carvell as Governor Crittenden. While the parts of women don't seem to play any big roles for a film that's mainly about men. Allison Elliott, Zooey Deschanel, and Mary Louise-Parker do fill their roles with grace. Elliott as the maternal-like Martha Bolton, Zooey Deschanel as Robert Ford's girlfriend in his final years, and Mary Louise-Parker as Jesse James' wife Zee who doesn't care about Jesse's antics only until after his death.

Garrett Dillahunt is great as paranoid Ed Miller whose alliance with Liddil about going to another gang gets him in trouble as he fears for Jesse. Jeremy Renner is also great in his role as Jesse's cousin Wood Hite who begins a feud with Liddil following Liddil's encounter with Wood's stepmother. Paul Schneider is brilliant as the laconic, poetic Dick Liddil whose love for women and the world around him makes him a fascinating character who likes to seduce women while providing the catalyst for Ford's assassination of James. Sam Shepard is great as the grizzled, tired Frank James who seems to feel tired being around young men as well as Jesse's reckless behavior. The film's best supporting performance goes to Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford. Rockwell plays a man who joins Jesse's gang as he brings his younger brother along. Watching Jesse's state of mind go nuts while watching himself in paranoia believing he was killed. Rockwell's performance is superb as he plays the film's observer watching both James and his own brother disintegrate.

Brad Pitt is in fantastic form as Jesse James. Pitt's performance is very layered with a sense of recklessness, melancholia, and a troubling state of mind. Pitt carries a presence and charisma that is perfect for the character of Jesse James as he uses his smile and unpredictable mood swings to play a character as complex as Jesse James in what is clearly one of his best performances. While Pitt is in great form, he is not the best performance of the film that really goes to his co-star Casey Affleck as his assassin, Robert Ford. Affleck's wild-eyed performance is wonderfully layered as an innocent, childlike young man who idolizes James in ever way as brings an innocence to the role. When the character starts to develop, Affleck's performance becomes much darker and more subtle as he becomes this laconic figure who starts to resent his idol as he becomes his assassin. Affleck's performance is brilliant in every scene up to the last frame when he seems weathered and troubled. While Pitt may have top billing, it's Affleck who is really the film's star.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an enchanting, eye-wielding, and stunning film from Andrew Dominik and company led by a great cast that includes Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Garrett Dillahunt, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell. Fans of the western genre will no doubt be amazed by this dream-like interpretation of the outlaw Jesse James and his assassin Robert Ford. While some audiences might be put off by its dream-like approach and elliptical pacing, it's a film fans of bio-pics and the western genre might enjoy with additional commendation to cinematographer Roger Deakins and music composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. In the end, for a dream-like western that gives the genre a new twist, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the film to go see.

© thevoid99 2012

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