THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007) C widescreen 160m dir: Andrew Dominik
w/Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Pat Healy, Ted Levine, Garret Dillahunt
In 1881, a younger member of the notorious Jesse James gang becomes so inextricably drawn to and frightened of his mentor that his own delusions of grandeur force him to consider doing the unthinkable.
From Edward Buscombe's remarks about the film in Sight & Sound, the magazine of the British Film Institute, December 2007: "Jesse James was, literally, a legend in his own lifetime. Newspapers published excited accounts of his exploits, and the bare facts of his life were embroidered in numerous dime novels. In the cinema, each generation has produced its own interpretation, choosing a Jesse James to suit the time. Tyrone Power [in 1939's JESSE JAMES] portrayed him as a defender of the rural poor against the tyranny of the banks and railroads during the Great Depression, an exemplar of Eric Hobsbawm's concept of 'social banditry.' In the 1950s, Robert Wagner's Jesse in The True Story of Jesse James was a kind of juvenile tearaway and heartthrob, while in 1972 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid debunked the myth, exposing the squalor, neurosis and violence behind the glamour. In The Long Riders (1980), the James gang were seen as representatives of a doomed folk culture of the southern backwoods; and in American Outlaws (2001), Colin Farrell played Jesse not so much as a hard-faced killer, more like the lead singer of a boy-band.
"In choosing to concentrate on the last year of Jesse's life, Andrew Dominik's new film focuses less on the outlaw's famed exploits or the social significance of his career, but rather on the motivations of those who brought about his downfall. Essentially this is a study of celebrity culture. Bob Ford, we learn, has hero-worshipped Jesse from an early age, and keeps a shoebox full of memorabilia and dime novels about the outlaw. 'I've been a nobody all my life,' says Bob, ready to suffer no matter how much derision and contempt in order to get close to Jesse and absorb some of his fame. His plan to assassinate the outlaw is carried out not for the reward money but for the moment of notoriety it will ensure. But predictably enough, Bob discovers that his newfound celebrity soon palls. Instead of the applause he feels is his right, he becomes an object of contempt --- in the words of the famous old ballad sung towards the end of the film, the 'dirty little coward, who shot poor Mr Howard' (Jesse was in hiding under the name of Thomas Howard at the time).
"In Casey Affleck's performance, Bob's face wonderfully expresses both the humiliations heaped upon him and the hunger for fame that drives him on. Jesse, by contrast, is a hollow man, his mood lurching violently from hysterical mirth to deadly menace, with no apparent motivation for the sudden shifts. As played by Brad Pitt, he's a character of tics and mannerisms but no inner life. No one really knows Jesse --- which enables those around him to project on to him whatever they seek. At the same time his unpredictability makes him doubly menacing. Bob remarks, trying to bolster his brother Charley's courage, that 'he's just a human being.' But if so, he is one utterly without warmth. In his authoritative biography, T.J. Stiles calls him 'a foul-mouthed killer'; this film certainly concurs, though it omits the vicious racism that motivated Jesse's loyalty to the Confederate cause.
"The film has a good feel for the Victorian milieu in which it is set, not only the decor and fashions but also the speech patterns of the age. Some of this is certainly due to Ron Hansen's documentary-style novel (published in 1983), on which the script is based. And Roger Deakins' photography makes the most of the bleak winter landscapes of the Midwest, evocative of the coldness and emptiness that lie in the heart of Jesse James."
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD was nominated for two Oscars: Best Supporting Oscar (Affleck) and Cinematography (Deakins).