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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

DVD released February 2008, Warner Home Video, 160 minutes, $27.98.

In some parts of the country, trying to find a theater showing this 2007 movie, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, was as difficult as trying to understand the true Jesse James. The Andrew Dominik–directed movie did get more than its share of publicity (see “Jesse James’ Assassination and the Ford Boys,” by Ted P. Yeatman, in the December 2006 Wild West Magazine), did get a few Oscar nominations and does star Brad Pitt. Those are enough reasons for many Americans to catch it for the first time on DVD. Viewers could be disappointed if they are looking for an action-packed Western in the mold of 2007’s outstanding 3:10 to Yuma. But otherwise, this one has numerous treats—the acting is exceptional, the images are stunning, the dialogue is excellent and it seems different from any other Western ever made .

Westerns about known historic figures rarely match up with the best movies featuring invented characters (think High Noon, The Searchers, Shane, The Wild Bunch, etc.). But there are exceptions, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and some of the Hollywood portrayals of Wyatt Earp and friends in Tombstone. The Assassination joins that small group, and stands at the head of the class of movies made about Jesse James. Dominik doesn’t try to do too much—such as attempt to put all of Jesse’s robberies on screen, which might have resulted in a 20- hour picture. The focus here is on the Missouri bandit’s very late career, with moody, increasingly paranoiac Jesse trying to carry on without his burnt-out older brother Frank James (played well by the always reliable Sam Shepard) and with a less than stellar band of new men, including 19-year-old Bob Ford (Casey Affleck received an Oscar nomination for supporting actor). Knowing something about the cast of characters ahead of time (such as by reading Hansen’s novel or Yeatman’s article and book)—including Bob’s brother Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell), Zee James (Mary Louise Parker), Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) and Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner)— might be beneficial. However, plenty of viewers with little knowledge of the James Gang have still enjoyed this always artistic, sometimes creepy, often haunting film.

After Pitt (Jesse) bites the dust, the show still goes on, literally, as the Ford brothers reenact the assassination on stage. Both Charlie and Bob are slated for their own dramatic ends before the closing credits. The hero-worshipping Bob Ford doesn’t seem so much a dirty coward as a naïve, romantically warped young man of destiny. Enjoy the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Roger Deakins.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here