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The Assassination of Jesse James: One for the Critics

December 3, 2007

Clapperboard The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, to give it its full title (and plot synopsis), is the kind of film you can look back on and find tons to admire.

  • The jaw-dropping cinematography.
  • The attention to detail in period-perfect costumes, sets, locations.
  • The standard of acting, particularly Casey Affleck as the semi-eponymous Bob Ford, the snivelling Jesse-James-obsessed, wannabe gunslinger.
  • The studied exploration of James’s descent into paranoia as he realises his career as outlaw has gone on too long, there is no-one he can trust any longer and there is no way out but impending death.
  • The insight into the obsessive cult of the celebrity as Ford, who worms his way into James’s gang as a puny but adoring hanger-on, becomes the instrument of James’s voluntary escape to oblivion.
  • The irony of Ford becoming transformed by that deed into a victim of the cult of celebrity himself, and meeting a similar fate.
  • The complete absence of cliché. As Westerns go this is a far cry from the John Wayne era.

It’s just such a shame that it’s a real effort to stay awake through the film. The pacing is pitched too slow, plain and simple. Ultimately, for a film to be a genuinely good film (never mind a great one or even Movie of the Year) it must grip and sustain the attention of a real audience.

Brad Pitt Jesse James

I can see cinema-buffs and critics drooling over this one. Trouble is that films aren’t made for critics. They’re made for real, ordinary people who need to be drawn in and taken on a journey they can get something out of there and then, as they’re watching it, not just when discussing it later in the pub.

I saw it with my wife and another couple. It was the first night the film was being shown but the cinema was all but empty. Our friends slept through most of the showing. My wife was also bored and I felt uncomfortable because it had been my idea to see the film, on the strength of a review by one of those drooling purist critics, the good Doctor Mark Kermode. Maybe the feeling that I was responsible for taking my friends to a film they weren’t enjoying put me off it. I did stick with it all the way through but was often conscious of time dragging. As we came out we compared notes with some of the other people who’d been watching the film. They were equally underwhelmed.

Is this a case of “audience failure”? Are we now too used to all-action mindless blockbusters so that we can no longer appreciate a thoughtful, well-crafted piece of quality cinema? I think not. I’m not particularly attracted to noisy, effects-laden, big budget blockbusters and neither are my wife or friends. The Director saddled the film with an unduly ponderous pace, failing to immerse us consistently, and thereby undermined its many virtues.

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4 comments

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  2. I have yet to see ‘Jesse James’ but no, you’re not wrong in that a lot of contemporary dramas utterly fail in the pacing dept. I mean slow and smouldering is fine as long as it has a point and is used to build up a mood or plot point. The problem with a lot of films that come out around this time of yeat is Oscar baiting, if you do a long, protracted character study it will get amazing press from high-end magazines, its stars will be interviewed in Vogue, nominations for awards, mutliple free dinnders and another abode in the Hamptons are assured. And there is nothing wrong with that at all as long as the film is good. The best example of this all going hideously wrong that I can think of is ‘All the King’s Men’ which starred Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ryan Gosling and Kate Winslet. It was atrocious, in nearly every way. Another, more recent example wold be ‘Lions for Lambs’.

    To summarise, if you’re gonna gurn, look depressed and put it on film, make sure you’re gurning about something the audience can engage with.


  3. I agree 100% with this review of the film. It is spot on.


  4. The family of Jesse James have posted their own 5 page review of the film on their family web site , together with other stories about the family’s former experiences with Hollywood and Jesse James movies.

    http://www.ericjames.org/Reviews/AssassinationofJesseJames/index.html



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