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Bleak, Beautiful Jesse James Is Worth a Look

  • Christian Hamaker Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • 2007 10 Oct
  • COMMENTS
Bleak, Beautiful <i>Jesse James</i> Is Worth a Look

DVD Release Date:  February 5, 2008
Theatrical Release Date:  October 5, 2007
Rating:  R (for some strong violence and brief sexual references)
Genre:  Western
Run Time:  160 min.
Director:  Andrew Dominik
Actors:  Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Sam Shephard, Mary-Louise Parker, James Carville, Zooey Deschanel, Hugh Ross (narrator)

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. So says a character in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Forty-five years later, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford updates the idea, adding a heavy dose of Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson in its examination of how entertainment culture exploits historical truth. The result is a beautiful, slow-paced examination of the wages of sin, and the conflicted role of the public and its view of history.

Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James, an aging legend who spends his final year living under an assumed name, with a wife and two children. Weary and aching, James sits in his rocking chair, reflecting on his criminal ways. He and his brother Frank (an outstanding Sam Shephard) hire on a few helpers for one last train heist.

Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has other ideas. A 19-year-old with a collection of dime novels and newspaper accounts of James’ exploits (“They’re all lies,” James informs Ford, who tries to react without sorrow or rage to the revelation), Ford suffers from a bad case of hero worship. Although Frank informs Robert he doesn’t have “the ingredients” to be notorious, he refuses to accept Frank’s verdict, telling Jesse of multiple similarities between his upbringing and the killer’s. As he reads aloud to Jesse about the exploits of the James gang, he skips over any reference to Jesse’s brother. “Frank … Frank … Frank—that’s nothin’,” Ford says, jumping ahead to the next account of Jesse’s crimes.

“Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” James asks him, incredulously.

By committing the act in the film’s title, Ford hopes to become like James, and to carve out his own place in national lore—until the dawning reality of what he’s done turns the public against him. The public’s gradual shift is the most interesting point of this film, analyzing how heroes are created and their images nurtured by entertainers. In this case, Ford stages a re-enactment of the assassination, with his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) in the role of Jesse. But rather than bask in the widespread embrace he craves, Robert finds himself slowly rejected both by his brother and by the public.

As we watch Ford’s attempts to recreate Jesse’s death, we’re aware that the film we’re watching is doing the same thing, forcing us to question Ford. Was this man a hero or a villain? Did he do a public good by killing James, and if so, did he carry it out with honor? Is such a thing even possible?

The film’s storytelling incorporates narration set to images that are visually distorted around the edges of the frame. Multiple other images are filmed through window glass that stretches and obscures the characters—a reminder of the hazy notions of “truth” that the film conveys. Is it truth—or legend? Or both?

Lovely to look at and very well acted, The Assassination of Jesse James ... has a ruminative quality that falters only in its attempt to create tension during its culminating act: When it needs to grow taut, it slackens somewhat.

It remains noteworthy, however, for effectively incorporating voiceover narration (the script adapts a novel by Ron Hansen, a Catholic), and for another solid Pitt performance, following his role in Babel. Affleck also stands out as Ford, giving the character a just-right sense of bravado that remains beyond his own life experience.

The rest of the cast is uniformly outstanding, particularly the quivering, quavering men who assist Jesse in his crimes, but fear his rage-filled outbursts.

“The wages of sin is death,” Paul writes in Romans, and this film reinforces that truth, creating beautiful imagery that nonetheless shows sin and death in all its ugliness.

Questions? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@earthlink.net.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity:  Lord’s name taken in vain; some profanity; a woman is referred to as a “redskin.”
  • Drugs/Alcohol:  Cigar smoking, and scenes of group drinking.
  • Sex/Nudity:  Some crude jesting about sexual performance; a woman commits adultery, although nothing is shown.
  • Violence:  Robberies; bloody beatings; death by gunshot; head wounds; images of pooling blood; snakes’ heads are cut off; description of eating a heart; knife blade pressed against a throat; punching and fighting; suicide.