“Why don’t you just say you did not like it!” That was the response I received from a co-worker after sharing my thoughts on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I was taken aback by this remark as it dawned on me that for the last ten minutes I had been pointing out everything that bothered me about the film. The truth is I quite enjoyed the film which is what made the experience so frustrating at times.
Andrew Dominik’s film is not your typical western film, although there are a few moments of action, the film is more a meditative look at the events that led up to the death of famed outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). The film follows Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as he joins the James-Younger Gang as they are about pull off their last train robbery. A fan of James from when he was a boy, Ford, now approaching twenty, is delighted to work alongside his idol. However, as time passes, Ford’s relationship becomes strained as both resentment and paranoia begin to set in. Jesse James knows it is only a matter of time before his number is up, but the question becomes who in his group will be the one to pull the trigger. As tension rises, and secrets are kept, the gang begins to crumble paving the way for Robert Ford to grab the spotlight he always desired.
If there is one word that came to mind as the credits rolled, it would have to be “exhausting.” The major issue I had, and I assume several others will have, with the film is the pacing. While I am always willing to dive into a meditative film, there is something about the overly contemplative nature of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford that drove me mad. I struggled for a long time after watching the film trying to figure out what it was. A few days removed from the film, it has dawned on me that it wasn’t so much the contemplative elements that bothered me as it was the fact that it unnecessarily delays the film from moving forward.
This is most noticeable when you look at whose story the film is actually telling. The film is not only about the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford, but also the insecurities and paranoia that each man must eventually deal with. However, the film spends a lot of time focusing on sub plots involving supporting characters. This is a bit of a blessing and a curse for the film. On one hand some of the sub plots are extremely entertaining, but they do not necessarily enhance the main story. In fact it often does the main story a disservice as they overshadow many of the pre-assassination Robert Ford moments. When looking at the film as a whole many of the sub plots could have easily been summed up in a few lines of dialogue.
Again, I do not want to sound like I am trashing the film as, like I mentioned to my co-worker, I actually did enjoy many aspects it. From a visual standpoint, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford is endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the use of soft focus whenever the narrator speaks, or the beautifully framed shots of Jesse James and his masked crew as they are waiting for the train which they are about to rob, Dominik’s film offers much to fawn over.
It should also be noted that the acting from the ensemble cast is outstanding. Brad Pitt brings the perfect mix of melancholy and unstable fire to the character of Jesse James. He provides a good sense of what made James so fearsome to others. However, at no point do you ever feel like Pitt is dominating a scene. Each actor is equally up to the challenge of matching Pitt. This is especially true in regards to Casey Affleck, who has one of the toughest roles in the film. Affleck must be both unabashedly ambitious as well as the group whipping boy. He has to go through the most changes in the film. Another example of how strong the performances are can be found in the the interplay between Jeremy Renner’s Wood Hite and Paul Schneider’s Dick Liddil. Though the Hite and Liddil sub plot overshadows the films at times, the actors successfully mix both humour and tension into their escalating feud.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a film that I feel will probably play better on repeat viewing. Now that I am more aware of where the pacing issues occur in the film, I might be more incline to look past them and explore more of the themes that Andrew Dominik is striving for. However, as it stands, the film is both frustrating and enjoyable at the same time. I know this is not the best way to sell the film but I am just being honest. There is a lot that I loved about the film, but there are also elements that I cannot easily ignore…yep, I will need to watch this one again.