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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

August 24, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Director: Andrew Dominik
Actors: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell

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Synopsis: Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) develops an unhealthy obsession with notorious outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt)….

Review: One of the most self-regarding films of recent years, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford‘s very premise is ‘academic’: a revision of the Jesse James legend with a contemporary, neo-Western slant that seeks to redeem the reality of James’ life from the myth, and also to use Robert Ford as an essay on the nature of fandom and the culture of idolatry. Though not entirely unsuccessful, the film simply spends too much time pleading its thematic case – not helped by the ridiculously earnest and self-conscious film title.

This earnestness of ‘attack’ is made clear from the portentous 3rd person voiceover which seems like a decent ironic construct at the film’s opening but becomes a fatuous use of thematic exposition by the end – particularly when charting the downfall of Robert Ford post-assassination. More appealing is the painstaking approach to mise en scène and cinematography that supports the film’s grandiose aims. Befitting the film’s revisionist tone, director Andrew Dominik and DP Roger Deakins contrive a stark palette (in film sheen, landscape and costume) thus casting a suitably wintry air over the narrative. Equally laudable is Brad Pitt’s nuanced performance as Jesse James – refusing to rhetoricise the character’s murky morality too much, and thereby making him the necessary cipher for Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford to project the film’s cerebral baggage on to. (December 2009)

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