‘Strong ambivalence’ might seem like an oxymoron, but it’s the only way I can think to describe my reaction to “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Though it has much to recommend it, including a commanding performance by Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, this is a film nearly as inscrutable as its central characters.
Based on the critically-acclaimed novel by Ron Hansen, the film is really the story of Ford, the twenty-year-old “nobody” who idolized Jesse James (Brad Pitt), yet later killed him in cold blood and became memorialized as a coward in popular folk song “The Ballad of Jesse James.”
When we first meet Ford he is trying to ingratiate himself into the James gang, led by Jesse’s older and more cautious brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Ford has a sheepish grin and an awkward manner that makes Frank uneasy, but Jesse lets him participate in a train robbery.
In the aftermath of the robbery the James Gang disperses, but Jesse allows Ford to stay, and the two spend several days together talking, drinking, and smoking cigars before Jesse sends Ford back home.
Up until this point, the film is a masterful, surreal and cerebral study of these two men. But things change when Jesse becomes increasingly erratic and begins confronting (and killing, in some cases) those who participated in the train robbery, like some paranoid mob boss in a gangster movie.
And as his relationship with Jesse grows strained, Ford begins to believe that he can achieve fortune and glory by killing the notorious outlaw.
As I said before, “Jesse James” has much to commend, not the least of which is Casey Affleck’s mesmerizing performance. Everything about Ford, from his goofy grin, to his wide-eyed worship of Jesse, to his nervy and hesitant voice helps to reveal a tortured young man.
The film also features a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and hypnotic cinematography from the award-winning Roger Deakins.
What the film does not possess is a story that strips away the varnish of generations of popular folklore to reveal the real Jesse James and Robert Ford.
James, in particular, comes off as maddeningly enigmatic and mercurial, a man equally at home playing with his children as he is with a revolver in his hand.
By my count, six people walked out of the theater during the film and never came back; a relatively low percentage compared to everyone who stayed, but significant nonetheless.
These people were probably expecting and hoping for a shoot ’em up Western like the recently-released “3:10 to Yuma,” or a morality play like Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece “Unforgiven.”
Instead, “Jesse James” is a slow-paced character study that leaves you feeling unsettled at its end.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.