The assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I confess, I’ve been slow getting round to this.  I was given it on DVD for Christmas and what a gift, because this is one masterpiece of a movie.  As it progressed it became clearer and clearer to me that the brooding and grumbling soundtrack (all instrumental) sounded distinctly like Nick Cave and so it transpired; written as it was by him and his Bad Seed partner Warren Ellis (the Big Beardy one).  The soundtrack is only one of the great perfections of this movie, because like everything in it it sticks like Araldite together in perfect symmetry.

Let’s turn to the cinematography by Roger Deakins.  This is photography at its very finest and he won an Oscar this year (but not for this which was surely the runner up).  He won it for No Country For Old Men which I have raved about elsewhere.  What sets the photography apart here is that he introduces a strange stressing of the picture at certain points (when the narrator speaks mainly I think) and my guess is that this is to reflect Jesse James’ failing eyesight which is referred to early in the movie.

Now the casting.  You will surely never see a greater Brad Pitt performance and Casey Affleck as the Coward Robert Ford who first idolises and then vilifies James is quite outstanding and rightly was Oscar nominated for the performance.

The story is a little tricky to follow because a lot of characters are referred to in contexts that one might not understand if not a student of Jesse James; which I’m not.  Anyway, it hangs around James’ final days in which he’s taking more risks than he should.  His gang is breaking up and his loyal recruits ain’t as loyal as they used to be.  James knows this (or at least senses it) and you see him become increasingly paranoid in a way that Daniel Day Lewis totally overblew it in There will be Blood (for my money this a far better movie with a far subtler exposition of madness and the pursuit of a different kind of power).

As the film progresses the young (19) Thomson becomes completely disenamoured of his erstwhile childhood hero (for many, James was the Robin Hood of America) and sees instead only James’ self driven anger and thirst for revenge.  To gain the £100,000 bounty on his head Ford and his brother Charlie (also brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell) plot to overthrow him.

In the end the moment of execution is an anticlimax for the pair (but not the viewer) in that James seemingly surrenders and takes a bullet to the back of the head.

At first lauded (mildly) Ford soon sees the backlash as America proclaims him not a hero but a coward for killing an unarmed man by shooting him in the back of the head.  Ford’s life is ended in a further revenge killing and the whole futility of it all becomes apparent.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  Long it may be (2h 40min) but it’s all the better for that because we never really wanted it to end.