The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,
directed by Andrew Dominik
(Warner Bros., 2007)

It has the words "assassination" and "Jesse James" right there in the title.

So tell me how The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, an awesome movie title by any stretch, could be so entirely dull?

OK, so the movie -- based on a novel by Ron Hansen and turned into a screenplay by director Andrew Dominik -- does not claim to tell the thrilling life of Jesse James, one of the most notorious outlaws ever to come out of the American West. Instead, it focuses on the last few months of James's life and his meeting with Robert Ford -- younger brother of James Gang member Charley Ford, who grew up idolizing the outlaw -- and Ford's eventual decision to kill James for the large reward that was offered.

I get it, the film is supposed to be about characters, emotional connections, tortured decisions and so on. And some people laud the film for its dichotomies -- instead of showing Jesse James, for instance, as the folk hero of songs and stories, it depicts him as a petty thief and killer, sometimes cruel and often paranoid, who also just happens to be a happy and loving husband and father at home. And Bob Ford, who went down in history as a coward for shooting his unarmed friend in the back, and who was later himself assassinated for that very reason, is shown here as a sad, insecure man who both worships James and fears him, who loves attention and who longs for the renown he is sure will come with James's murder.

But the movie crawls. After a pretty thrilling opening -- depicting the James Gang's last big job, a well-filmed and gorgeously lit train robbery -- the movie is content to spend more than two hours showing us people sitting, riding horses, eating dinner, going to the outhouse, staring at other people, staring into the distance, leaning and basically avoiding anything that might be interesting to watch.

I'm not an action junkie, and no, I wasn't expecting a guns-a-blazing spaghetti western. But I also wasn't expecting to have to fight off sleep from sheer boredom. And, man, I was bored.

I can't really fault the cast, all of whom seemed to do what was asked of them by the director. So enjoy navel-gazing performances by Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Mary-Louise Parker (his wife), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), and Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt and Sam Shepard (as gang members Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, Ed Miller and Frank James, respectively).

But I can't recommend the movie, because it's ponderous and slow. If you enjoy those qualities in a film, dig in.

review by
Tom Knapp

20 May 2017

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