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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - # 396: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

At his peak, the outlaw Jesse James was the most famous outlaw in America. Brad Pitt is one of the most famous movie stars in the world, so it was a no brainer to cast him as the lead in Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” But as the long title says it, this isn’t just about James, but about the smaller man who tried to rise from under his shadow. Like Brad Pitt, James had many admirers, and in the case of Robert Ford, the kind movie stars fear: an obsessive fan with deadly ambitions.

I saw this movie as a result of a scriptwriting class at the University of Sherbrooke in 2008. To be honest I didn’t find the teacher to be very knowledgeable. He was telling us about a screenwriters’ strike that happened in the 1980s, but he didn’t even know there had been one that very year. My guess is, he was learning about this stuff just as we were. Still, he mentioned Andrew Dominik’s Jesse James movie a few times, praising the script. That weekend I decided to check it out for myself and rent the movie. It turns out the man was right: the movie does have a very good script, and a chilling performance by Casey Affleck.

Based on the book by the same name by Ron Hansen, “The Assassination of Jesse James...” does indeed tell the tale of how Robert Ford (Affleck) would eventually assassinate him by shooting him in the back in his own home. No surprise there, on paper the title says it all. What it doesn’t say is that this is not your regular Western, despite featuring the most famous outlaw of West. There are gunfights, of course, but there is also a lot of dialogue about what it means to be a legend. The cinematography by Roger Deakins evokes the work of Terence Malick, except that the script, also by Dominik, is more straightforward in its storytelling. 

Robert and Jesse first meet when James and his gang are planning a train robbery. Robert is ecstatic at the thought of being to the man he idolized in books he read as a child. Yet as he and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) spend more and more time with Jesse and the members of his gang, which include older brother Frank James (Sam Sheppard), cousin Wood Hite (Jerremy Renner), and dimwit Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), Robert realizes his idol is not who he thought he was. Jesse is at first amused by his admirer, but eventually finds him the admiration annoying and has him sent away.

Some of the quieter scenes between Pitt and Affleck are both tense and disturbing. While visiting Robert and noticing how nervous he looks, Jesse asks him to tell him a story. Robert responds by telling him all the similarities between the two men, which makes him sound like an obsessive fan. In response, Jesse tells him a story how he once killed a man who slightly reminds him of Robert.

Following a series of killings and arrests that put them at odds with the James gang, Robert and his brother eventually cooperate with the authorities of the state of Missouri, who would gladly see Jesse James arrested, but preferably killed. Even the governor (played by political pundit James Carville) sanctions a deal with Robert giving him 10 days to either capture or assassinate Jesse in exchange for $10,000.

The scenes leading up to the actual killing and the ones after are the best in the movie. Brad Pitt’s performance indicates Jesse knew the bullet was coming, even though it entered the back of his head. He could tell Robert was dangerous, but he was tired of running. He was probably tired of being Jesse James. How was he supposed to settle down with his wife and children given that he was the most famous outlaw in America? Robert’s problem would eventually be how do you live with yourself once you have eliminated one of the most famous men in America? The authorities applauded him of course, but he wasn’t the only one who read the books that built the myth of Jesse James. People don’t like to lose their idols.


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