THIS is how you make a western

A couple weeks ago I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I can’t get it out of my head. And it’s not because Brad Pitt was in it.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie, as the title suggests, tells the story of Jesse James’s last few months. We witness everything that leads up to his death and, in the process, see what the legendary man has become as he creeps into middle age (which is apparently 34 in olden times; quite disturbing, I know).

Before I get into why I loved this film so much, let me show you what some critics had to say when it was released in 2007:

It is no mean feat to make a boring film about Jesse James, but Andrew Dominik [director] has pulled it off in style.—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

Hugely ambitious and not without moments of success, this indulgent 2 hour and 40 minute epic ends up as unwieldy as its elongated title. It’s a movie in love with itself, and few things are more fatal than that.—Kenneth Turan, LA Times

There are a few more like this (and a handful of others that praise the film), but I think you get the point. When I read what these fine, intelligent folks thought, I had only one reaction: What the H-E-double hockey sticks are they talking about?!?

For me, the film was amazing. Beautiful. Moving. Everything about it screamed brilliant storytelling—the cinematography, the filming technique, the music, the narration, the language, the setting, and most of all, the actors’ performances. You’ve got Pitt playing Jesse, Casey Affleck playing Robert Ford (a teenage kid who’s obsessed with him), and amazing guys like Sam Rockwell (love him), Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, and a very freaky but awesome Paul Schneider.

Indulge me and watch the first few minutes of the movie. You’ll see what I’m talking about:

Jesse James is not a typical western, and maybe that’s why some of these critics are having issues. There’s shooting, but it’s not the typical shoot-‘em-up stand-off westerny thing that Clint Eastwood is famous for. Pitt, who also produced the film, said this: “I don’t call it a western. I call it something worse: a psychological drama.” So, so true, Brad. May I call you Brad?

The film’s focus is on what happens to a man who for years makes his living stealing, killing, building himself up as a legend, and running from both the good and bad guys who want to take him down. What happens to such a man? I’ll give you a hint: the word “psychopath” might be thrown around. Such a life is the glamour old-time comics and 1950s movies are made of, but this film shows what the reality of it is—misery, internal torture, terror, and suicidal tendencies.

How amazing is this group of actors?!?

For the entire 2 hours and 40 minutes, I was completely stressed out. But that’s a good thing. You know something bad is going to happen (I don’t think I’m giving it away by saying that Jesse James is murdered), but you don’t know how or why. You’re torn apart as you watch how the young Robert Ford is treated. You wonder, who else is going to die? You just don’t know. Jesse James could snap at any minute. You become as paranoid as the characters.

I didn’t realize this before I watched it, but the film is based on a book by Ron Hansen. I don’t normally read “westerns,” but from what I’ve read the movie is pretty faithful to the book. I think I’ll check it out.

Anyone else seen the film? What did you think? If not, did I convince you to ignore those critics and see it for yourself?

Images from Warner TV and The Dork Report.

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