The notion that an epic film must have significant length in order to be important is one that probably should have been ignored when creating The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The title alone makes it feel like a long film, and then, after it plays for 160 minutes, you feel tired and exhausted. Yes, part of that is because it’s an emotionally involving film, but it also has a very long middle section that meanders and forgets what the film is about: The two characters in the title, and the event that happens between them.
This is a film not about the destination, but about the journey. The title spoils the ending. Jesse James, portrayed here by Brad Pitt, will die. He will be killed by Robert Ford, who is played by Casey Affleck. The why and how are a mystery before you watch it — and this isn’t aiming to be a biopic, so you can’t use your historical knowledge on this one to figure it all out — but you know the outcome. What you’re here for is the journey, the reason behind the assassination, and why the title presumes that Robert Ford is a coward.
We begin by following Bob Ford’s attempts to get into Jesse James’ gang of thieves. He has idolized the man since he was a small child — almost obsessively, in fact. He has books, newspaper clippings and so on inside of a shoebox, and whenever he returns home, he looks at them for inspiration. He eventually gets into the gang, becomes James’ most trusted man, and then you think that the film could very well end with the assassination, and that it would be a 90 minute, tightly paced movie.
That’s not what happens, however, as Jesse’s paranoia begins to seep through the calculating exterior. He begins to suspect that Robert is up to something, and the characters go back and forth in their relationship. Sometimes, they’re almost like the best of friends. Others, they won’t even look one another in the eyes. In the first case, we always suspect that Jesse could blow up with the slightest twitch from Robert.
This would be scary if we didn’t know how the relationship must end. There would be a lot of tension generated due to the characters’ personalities if we didn’t know that, yes, Jesse James will be killed, and yes, Robert Ford is the one to do it. We know that James can’t do anything to Ford, because that would make the title, and history, a lie. And while that kind of misdirection would be a fun surprise — perhaps Jesse James became even more of a folk hero because he saw through Ford’s deception — it’s not the case here.
The beginning, when we’re learning about our two leads and trying to gauge where each one is in their lives, is very enjoyable. There’s a certain amount of intrigue when you’re still trying to get your bearings in this time period, and at this point of the film, I was ready to call it great. Then the second act hit, and tedium took over. We focus too heavily on secondary characters, and we repeat the same back-and-forth between James and Ford that it’s hard to keep giving the film your full attention.
Admittedly, it does redeem itself at the end, and you realize at this point how much you grew to like both of these men, but it’s not enough to justify the 160 minutes that you have to sink into the movie. A great beginning and very strong finish do make the film overall worth watching, but a ruthless editor could have brought out the best of the film, and probably would have removed a good 30-40 minutes of unnecessary content. We don’t need to see the fates of all of these secondary characters, and their subplots feel like filler just so that the movie can be called an “epic.”
That’s fine, I suppose. It comes with the territory, and because the film is very well made and emotionally involving, I could overlook that. The performances even during these moments of tedium, are still very strong, and they always give you something to watch. And Roger Deakins’ cinematography is gorgeous, giving us sweeping landscapes of the Alberta prairies that takes you back to a simpler time and place. Westerns need to be shot like this, as part of the appeal are the types of shots that can be created.
I mentioned the performances. While they’re all strong, the two leads deserve the most credit for carrying the film. Pitt’s Jesse James allows you to see why the man is a folk hero, portraying him as charismatic and charming, with just a hint of insanity ready to bubble through. Affleck disappears into Robert Ford, accurately showing us exactly how he feels at every moment. And the voiceover dialogue doesn’t hamper the film for a change; it’s actually informative and beneficial to the final product.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western that contains too much filler to be given a wholehearted recommendation. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating film where the good parts are definitely worth sitting through the bad, but the bad sections do drag it down. A tougher editor would have cut out more and would have created a more focused film. The actors keep it alive, and they’re the reason you should watch it.