The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Review

While the western may have died long ago, the modern period of revisionist brutality has paved the way to a few stand-out classics. Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight inspired the attractive allures of hyperviolence and the natural elements cowboys and bandits would face off with. The former was a collation of spectacles and narrative elements that made up the best of the genre, while the latter hoped to capture the tensions of claustrophobia to the backdrop of The Great Silence or McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Both are successful to varying degrees, but it is the bold work of director Andrew Dominik on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that marks the return of the western epic.  

Spinning a narrative this huge is no small feat, and the endurance necessary to this style comes down to character and presentation. Opening with a brief narration that brings us up to speed with Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his notorious crimes, there is little work left to be done. We are free to explore these characters and the bouts of jealousy and lapses in judgement they may or may not have. Casey Affleck preserves these feelings of old exceptionally well with his performance as Robert Ford. He is the nervous recruit hoping to catch the eye of the legend that leads him from town to town.  

Although The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford attaches itself so closely to the attire and style of the western genre, it is the antithesis of what Clint Eastwood and company stood for. These characters are not brooding heroes that are undisturbed by violence or unhindered by tougher odds. Most of these characters are venomous and violent toward each other, and it is their general lack of success in achieving the infamy they seem to desire that is mused on most of all. Dominick focuses his camera on the nervous disposition Affleck brings, almost immediately he is out to impress Pitt, who is too cool and collected to care for Ford. He is another pawn in the private band of outlaws he has prepared. He is neither condescending nor conniving to the face of Ford, and that is where James comes to life as a character.  

James may be cooler in these moments, but when it is needed, Pitt deploys some of the towering terror necessary to remind an audience that James is a crook, criminal and cheat. It is bloody and restrained at the same time, rewarding and artistically well-composed. A train robbery gone slightly wrong sees these tensions come to life, the stubbornness of the just and innocent no match for what James wants. He is a convincing villain at times, but there we are, as an audience, rooting for the man. James presents the lesser of two evils when paired with Ford. He is, at least, spirited and brave, a man willing to go the extra mile to ensure his own, greed-ridden safety. Ford wishes to become the hero through association, rather than action. Dominick displays this well with his direction, providing ample time also to Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner who each provide an engaging supporting role.  

A great ensemble tackles some detailed and brilliant writing, adapting the story of Robert Ford and Jesse James to the big screen with exceptional delivery and talent. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is paced exceptionally well, a real testament to the talent of Dominick can be found in his command of the story. Warring factions soon break out, they begin to pry and grasp at one another with growing tenacity and venom. Within the shimmers of doubt and negligence found throughout these characters is the overwhelming notion that, sooner or later, they’ll meet with a fate fitting of their tenacity and terror. 

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