The Assassination of Jesse James By The Robert Coward Ford, 2007
Directed and Written by Andrew Dominik, co-written by Rob Hansen
We are expected to praise a Western just for having a heart and a brain, as though the song the balladeer concludes the film busking is not just a good song, but would be deeply insightful were it to understand that the coward was sad too.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a moderately well-acted and quite well-shot melodrama in the west with bursts of great, whip-smart violence that say more than the interminable, cliché-ridden script and fairly unoriginal production style. For the violence screams that anyone could do what these men are doing; they miss repeatedly, they grapple their own intense fears, and the winner in a shoot is just the luckier man at the end of a gun. The violence is not played for legend, and that is the film’s purpose.
This is a film with grand scope and a kettle structure. It tackles empathy amongst thieves, the mistakes of youth, the vindictiveness of old men, and (as if to require an “of course”) gay cowboys. And these don’t take the form of side-plots, but tie exclusively into the battle between the charisma of Jesse James and the angst of Robert Ford, and those who would shape the war.
I don’t have a solution for “how to make this film better” because it is not that anybody does anything wrong. Like the last film I reviewed, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, it is more that there is just a limit to what is remarkable about this film. Robert Ford, for example, is played adequately by Casey Affleck, and it’s a hard role, so that’s commendable. But does he elevate the role, the way people might point to Daniel Day Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, or Joaquin Phoenix surpass theirs? You might argue that he’s not supposed to elevate the role, that it would upset the film. But then who elevates this film to make it remarkable?