Making the Grades
He was the topic of dime store novels and embellished newspaper reports, but in truth, was Jesse James a Robin Hood or just a robber? Over the years, many variations and of his life story have been told. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, actor and producer Brad Pitt shares his interpretation of the infamous thief and of the person who eventually killed him.
The movie opens just hours before the James gang's last train robbery. Tensely waiting for their leader's next orders, the guys huddle around a crude fire while sharing perverse comments about native women. Perhaps a little more distracted is the newest member of the mob, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young man who is almost giddy at the prospect of taking down a train under the tutelage of his idol.
When the moment finally arrives, Jesse (Brad Pitt) stands atop of a barricade of railroad ties surrounded by a dark, dense forest, lit only by the headlamp of the oncoming locomotive. With the confidence of a matador, he commands the steam engine to a stop. Inside, some of his boys work over the passengers while Jesse and the rest violently knock out the mail clerk so they can take a look at what's stored in the safe.
But the notorious gunman is building a bigger reputation than he can possibly evade, with rewards on his head that are far greater than the few thousands they garner from plundering. Idling away the time while seeking refuge and awaiting the next job, speculation and paranoia begins to grow within the group. As questions of loyalty versus betraying their leader for the loot are entertained, gun barrels begin pointing toward each other. Due to the unrest Jesse selects Robert Ford, with his nervous chatter and searching eyes, to become his close companion and personal assistant. (History will dictate this choice of friend to be the criminal's fatal mistake.)
Openly admitting much of the script is speculative, the writers and producers of this film attempt to build a moody drama by spending the majority of the screen time illustrating what's happening when there's nothing happening. By placing a priority on lingering conversations between individuals who aren't certain of their companions' intentions, they try to create a sense of simmering tension. Instead, the story becomes a maze of intertwined personalities whom we don't know well enough to care about.
Although this approach prevents the western from becoming an action flick, there are still some scenes where bullets do fly, resulting in casualties (often depicted in bloody detail) and the permanent retirement of gang members. Language proves to be a little more civil, with infrequent use of mild and moderate profanities, although the aforementioned crass remarks contribute to the film's sexual content, as does a sensually heated discussion between a man and a woman.
Despite the public's fascination with this anti-hero who shot and robbed his way through close to two decades of history, this film chugs along at a snail's pace. Not even the amazing staging of the train robbery at the beginning or the extensive artistic views of the Canadian scenery where the movie was shot help to speed it along. Things only begin to get interesting after Ford does his deed and the focus moves into the post-assassination trauma he encountered as the most famous coward in America. However, by then our patience has been stretched for close to two hours and we have lost hope that there is any life left in the remaining forty minutes of this tiresome tragedy.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford.
Jesse James and his gang were responsible for murdering and robbing many people over the span of two decades. Yet, even while he was still on the loose, people were authoring adventure novels featuring the gunman. Why do you think the public was willing to overlook his malevolent behavior in favor of his fictionalized persona? Are we any “smarter” today, or do we still turn criminals into celebrities?