The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford review – gripping grandeur

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck shine in Andrew Dominik’s revisionist western

Assassination? That's a pretty fancy way of referring to the killing of one criminal by another. It's surely more appropriate for the slaying of Abraham Lincoln, the president loathed by Confederate holdouts of the old south who worshipped the James boys as revenge-activists in their sacred cause. But Andrew Dominik's slow-moving, but gripping and tremendously observed picture about the 1882 murder of legendary scofflaw Jesse James has a self-possession, even a grandeur, that persuades you that the word is justified.

Dominik sees Jesse James's killing as a political act in that it was allegedly commissioned, on a nod and a wink, by state authorities humiliated by their failure to catch James, and reluctant to see him turned into a martyr. It has its place in the pre-history of celebrity, in that James was gunned down by an obsessive fan. It even has a kind of biblical resonance: except everyone in Jesse James's gang was Judas, including the leader.

Most of all, though, the movie is about a psychological duel. As his career draws to an end, Jesse James becomes aware of the impossibility of facing an increasingly vast army of sheriffs, federal agents and Pinkerton men. He senses that, inevitably, one of his gang will in any case sell him out for a fat reward. Unwilling to give the lawmen that satisfaction, James embraces his own death and subtly cultivates the mercurial attentions of the most obviously cringing and cowardly of his associates: 20-year-old Robert Ford. With the taunts and whims of a lover, he encourages Ford's envious, murderous fascination, and grooms him as his own killer, so that his own legend will be pristine after his death. He engineers a character-assassination of Ford, and the title, knowingly, gets it precisely the wrong way around.

Brad Pitt is an excellent James, weary, lionised, disillusioned, yet with an actor's technique and a sociopath's obsession with control. Casey Affleck is outstanding, too, as Ford, though I can't agree with the critical opinion elsewhere expressed that he outclasses and upstages Pitt. With his weird grin and disordered teeth in various shades of grey, his supplicant mannerism of turning his hat round and round by the brim, and his creepily exact knowledge of everything about the legendary brothers, Affleck's Ford really is a dangerous customer.

Sam Shepard has a nice cameo at the beginning of the film as Jesse's elder brother Frank, coldly spurning Robert's sycophantic request to be considered a regular member of the gang. Cinematographer Roger Deakins intersperses the action with unhurried still-life portraiture of chairs, or lamps, or fences, sometimes presented with the distortion and selective focus of the stereoscope souvenir pictures that sold in their thousands after Jesse James's death.

This is a real success for New Zealand-born, Australian director Dominik: he has immersed himself in a piece of classic Americana, yet he brings to it an outsider's perspective and shrewdness, in which the only false note is the use of a supercilious third-person narrative voiceover, which smudges the picture's crispness and clarity. There is a bizarre anti-mysticism in Jesse James bringing on his own death, like some parody-version of Thomas More or Thomas Becket. A tremendously stylish, intelligent retelling of western myth.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

Rental and retail: Rather as Italy and Spain once kicked the western back into shape in the 1960s, Australia and New Zealand are raising the genre's bar now.

Rob Mackie

01, Apr, 2008 @3:16 PM

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

New Zealander Andrew Dominik's slow, stately film presents a subtly shifting atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion

Rob Mackie

28, Mar, 2008 @10:24 AM

Film of the week: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Philip French: This elegant, perceptive examination of the life and death of Jesse James is also a striking study in the deadly perils of hero worship

Philip French

02, Dec, 2007 @12:13 PM

Article image
The Assassination of Jesse James: a gloomy Hamlet in the wild west

This Brad Pitt vehicle scores high marks for historical accuracy and lovely cinematography, but gosh does it need to be so solemn?

Alex von Tunzelmann

08, Jan, 2009 @8:00 AM

You review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The critics were kind about this new-look western, a contemplative why-he-do-it rather than a thrilling whodunnit. How about you?

Meg Clothier

03, Dec, 2007 @3:15 PM

Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

DVD of the week: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Mark Kermode

30, Mar, 2008 @12:04 AM

Article image
Terrence Malick to Woody Allen – the directors actors will kill to work for

A select few directors – Terrence Malick, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen et al – have A-list stars queuing up to be in their films. Jane Graham on what makes an actor magnet

Jane Graham

23, Jun, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
The Tree of Life review – hugely ambitious and passionate masterpiece
Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are the stars of Terrence Malick latest film, a passionately felt study of inner crisis

Peter Bradshaw

07, Jul, 2011 @2:00 PM

Article image
Megamind – review
Will Ferrell and Brad Pitt voice the bad guy and the superhero in an entertaining animation, writes Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw

02, Dec, 2010 @10:01 PM

DVD releases: March 29

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford | The Killing Of John Lennon | Black Sheep | Regarde La Mer | Irma Vep | Burnt By The Sun | Wild Palms

Phelim O'Neill

29, Mar, 2008 @12:22 AM