OK, the first strike against this movie for most people is the title. Yes, it is long for our day and time. We like one- or two-word titles, punchy and succinct. But Assassination is so grounded in the events of 1882 that the title fits right in with the headlines, ballads, and dime novels of the day. And from the title on, director Andrew Dominik so immerses the viewer in that time’s pace that when “action” scenes flow into the story, they feel all the more shocking.
The film opens with Jesse, Frank, and a band of outlaws preparing to rob a train in Blue Cut, Missouri in September 1881. Charlie Ford, one of the members, has brought his younger brother Bob with him. Bob’s eager attempt to ingratiate himself with the James brothers begins a cycle of cruel hazing which will gradually alienate him from the men surrounding Jesse. But those men have their own agendas, including turning Jesse in to collect the reward money offered for him. As rumors reach his ears, Jesse begins to eliminate his potential traitors. Strangely, Bob and Charlie Ford become the only two he trusts, and he plans to use them in his plan to rob another bank.
Brad Pitt’s Jesse James is a dynamic personality, filmed as the only principal character with color in his face and a glitter in his eyes. By contrast, the other men look blue and pale, as if they are already on exhibit in a funeral parlor. Even the civilians, such as Jesse’s wife (Mary-Louise Parker in an unusually passive role), are clad in black and white and occupy space only as backdrops to the action around them. Pitt alternates between furious paranoia and bonhomie, and he can turn so quickly that the characters around him are kept in a constant state of fear.
The one character who occupies a middle space is Robert Ford, played by Casey Affleck as a wide-eyed admirer of the storybook James brothers. His speech is clumsily formal, as if stuck halfway between child and adult, in contrast to the Biblical language that the other men easily use. The interplay between the two is what drives the film, and it almost seems that Jesse knows Bob is meant to kill him, but his death will be at a time and place of Jesse’s own choosing. He prods and provokes Bob’s disillusionment and fear, and then hands him a gift—a shiny nickel-plated revolver to replace the old pistol Bob has been carrying. If Jesse wants Bob to murder him, it will only be with a weapon suitable for his dignity. Even that fatal moment is drawn out, as if there could be any other outcome.
The film’s pacing is deliberate, since we are meant to wait for that known outcome. But the characters are waiting as well. After being at war with society for twenty years, Jesse knows he has nothing to do but wait, and nowhere to go but his grave. Bob Ford is waiting to become a full member of Jesse’s gang, or for Jesse to discover the terrible secret Bob and Charlie are concealing, and the unspoken battle is to discover who can outwait the other.
The film is set in the wide open spaces and raw frontier towns of the growing West, so the scenery is spectacular. One short shot in particular, of the high and scattered clouds I always heard called “mackerel sky,” is incredibly memorable. Much like the scenery in John Ford’s great movies and the revived Westerns such as Unforgiven and True Grit, it captures a feeling of isolation and inherent danger.
One more thing. I watched the movie with my wife’s antique mantel clock ticking in the background. Against the counterpoint of its steady beat, the long tracking shots and sense of waiting added a haunting note to the film. It really enhanced my experience, and might work well for you.
Search the WRL catalog for The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford