The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007

Nations have a weird habit of romanticizing the savage past, even when there are people around who still remember the truth. There is perhaps no better example of this than Jesse James, a late-19th century outlaw/terrorist who was feared and hated right until he died.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the story of Robert Ford, a Jesse fanboy who joins the James gang with his brother, only for the eldest of the group (Sam Shepard) to declare that it’s time to give up the life of an outlaw. As the gang disintegrates, Jesse (Brad Pitt) only becomes more dangerous and unpredictable, leading Ford to side with the state of Missouri and take him out. At first, Ford is a hero, and spends the next year recreating the assassination on Broadway, but public opinion gradually and mysteriously turns in the late Jesse James’ favour. Finding himself in constant danger from the drunken mob, Ford retreats from public life.

In a year full of incredible cinema, and one chock full of westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nevertheless a highlight. The only problem is that while the James Gang’s dysfunction is given two hours of screen time, Ford’s eventual fate gets only 45 minutes. Apparently, the film was originally developed in two parts, with the assassination at the midpoint, but the studios intervened. Somewhere out there is a four-hour director’s cut that gives the whole story the time it deserves. I only hope that someday we will be able to see it. A-