The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker. Directed by Andrew Dominik.
Running Time: 160 minutes
Rated: Rated MA 15+ (strong violence)

Jesse James (Pitt) was one of the USA's first bona fide celebrities - for all the wrong reasons. To those he robbed and terrorized and to the families of those he killed, he was a murderous criminal, but in the sensational newspaper articles and dime novels chronicling the James Gang throughout the 1870s, Jesse was the object of fervent admiration.

He was often portrayed like Robin Hood, targeting railroad owners and banks that exploited poor farmers. He was a man with a tragic cause, a wronged and wounded Confederate soldier striking back against the Union that had ruined his life. Most importantly, to an increasingly urbanised population leading ordinary lives, he was the last frontiersman - a symbol of freedom and the American spirit, a charismatic rebel who flouted the law and lived by his own rules. The resemblances to Ned Kelly are striking.

Foremost among his admirers was Robert Ford (Affleck), an idealistic and ambitious young man who had devoted his life to the hope of one day riding alongside his idol. He could never have imagined that history would ultimately mark him as the "the dirty little coward' who shot Jesse in the back.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks at what a fragile man Jesse James actually was. And it gives us Robert Ford, just nineteen and a member of Jesse's inner circle, who was able to bring down such a formidable figure when lawmen across ten states had tried and failed.

This is a long film, so don't go tired or under time pressure or else you may miss so much of what can be admired in this fine cinematic achievement.

The performances are universally excellent. Brad Pitt won Best Actor at the recent Venice Film Festival for his role here, but I think Ben Affleck's baby brother Casey puts in an even better turn than the superstar.

Australian director Andrew Dominik, in his first feature film since Chopper, combines visual interest, psychological depth and an unhurried pace, which is never dull, to let this story unfold. Dominik will join the Hollywood A-list with this film.

Roger Deacon's cinematography is worth the admission price on its own. He co-opts the seasons and landscapes to tell its version of the events. Almost every scene is a gem, recreating the world of the wild west of the 1880s with a poetic eye to detail.

Given its title, there is something inevitable about this film, but the actual assassination of James is but the last major turning point into the final act of the drama. Rather than a letdown, this ultimate story is even more gripping than what has preceded it.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is morally complex. This is a violent lawless world, which some viewers will not want to enter, but the amorality of these mentally ill characters is never glamourised. They are presented as tragic, desperate men doing tragic and desperate crimes. And as with all criminal classes they uphold their own, confused internal moral law and code of conduct.

No one will ever know the whole truth about these men, but Ron Hansen's novel of the same name and this film delve into the private lives of America's most notorious outlaw and his unlikely assassin to offer a new perspective on a legend and address the question of what really may have transpired in the months before that infamous shooting.

This is adult Hollywood cinema at its best.

Village Roadshow Out 1st November

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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