Monday, October 29, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This weekend I went to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Before seeing the movie I knew little to nothing about how Jesse James died. The highest compliment I can pay this film is that I left it with the desire to read more about both Jesse James and Robert Ford. The emotions of the film and the nature of the characters have also stuck with me long after I left the theater.

As a film, it is beautifully shot and features breathtaking landscapes that capture the feeling of the unpopulated, untamed west. The acting performances are strong as well. The true stand-out is Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Without spoiling too much, Ford was one of America's first obsessed fans. He grew up idolizing Jesse James and dreaming about what it would be like to be a member of the James Gang. He gained all his knowledge through stories in pulp novels and frontier legends. In other words, he was enamored with the media created image of Jesse James. As he would come to know the real man and found that he didn't live up to his preconceived image, Ford grew more and more cold and angry towards James. There is one scene where Ford proudly tells James that he has read about all his exploits and knows them all by heart. James then tells him that those stories are all lies. You can see Ford's heart sink as he hears this. Casey Affleck gives Ford both a sense of pathos where you can truly relate to the enthusiastic young man, and a generally creepy quality where you know he's just not quite right. He is just perfect in this role.

Robert Ford reminded me most of Mark Chapman, the man who killed John Lennon. It's an amazing byproduct of the culture of media created celebrity that some people believe they can usurp another man's fame by killing him. Ford attempted to make a living off of being the man who killed Jesse James. He thought people would think he was a hero. Instead, people hated him and saw him as a coward. He had, after all, shot Jesse James in the back of the head as he dusted a picture! But, worst of all, he had killed an American folk hero.

The movie plays out very slowly and is not for everyone. It doesn't have much action in terms of gunfights but is till well worth watching. The strong acting, poignant story, and haunting images and characters make it a great film. The fact that before this movie I had never heard of Robert Ford but, of course, had heard of Jesse James, goes to show that cowards like Ford and Chapman can take a man's life, but they can never kill a legend.