The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (15)

Directed by Andrew Dominik, Based on a novel by Ron Hansen
Screening at FACT from 30th November 2007

Reviewed by Colin Serjent

This is a compelling slow-burner of a film. It is a lengthy (although the 160 minutes passed quickly) and lyrical account of the last days of Jesse James, one of America's most notorious outlaws.

The outstanding direction by New Zealander Andrew Dominik reminded me of the classic westerns, The Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Like Eastwood, Dominik is not content with using a simplistic view of the Wild West. He explores the inner self of a lot of his characters in the movie, and also uses symbolism to offer an often profound comment on today's society.

The overriding contemporary aspect of the film is the falsehood and shallowness of celebrity status, as was the case with Jesse James. The real person within is not the person that the public perceives him to be.

The shooting of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) does not bring the film to a close. Instead it goes deeper into the trappings and fecklessness of celebrity.

Although supposedly loathed for his spate of ruthless killings and numerous bank robberies and train hold-ups - it led to a massive $30,000 reward being offered for the capture of Jesse dead or alive - his killer Robert Ford is generally reviled for slaying an American legend.

He ends up as a pathetic specimen, full of guilt and remorse for what he did. He ends up being murdered by a glory-seeking assassin, possessing many of the motives that Ford had for killing Jesse.

The film opens with the James gang way past their heyday. Jesse and Frank James (Sam Shepard) are forced to recruit a bunch of no-hopers in their attempt to continue their series of robberies.

Among them is Ford, who adores Jesse, having avidly read about his exploits in the dime novels he collects.

The relationship between Jesse and Ford becomes more troubled, with the former having an apparent death wish. Jesse, both physically and mentally in decline, literally hands Ford the gun - one of his prized possessions - with which he is later shot in the back by Ford.

A special mention must go to the superb cinematography of British-born Roger Deakins, who captures bewitching shades of colour and light throughout this near-epic movie.

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