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The Assassination of Jesse James… (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Feature film. (2007, 166 mins) IMDB

...Why do directors these days they have to make long movies?...

J

essie James, an historical figure, is a name I recognize as a Wild West outlaw type, but know nothing beyond that. I imagine many people can relate. How is it he's so famous?

I'm sure in my youth I've watched films where he was portrayed but I can't recall. I certainly never read anything about him that would bring about the fame. It has to be films. His name repeated in awe or in fear or both in the way other historical figures are immortalized. Cleopatra. Napoleon. Caesar.

In looking briefly at a bio of Jessie James there is nothing to admire. He killed at least seventeen men. Robbed banks and trains. He was a thug, a criminal. He died, as it should be, young--thirty-four years old--yet the name persists.

For whatever reason he's famous, but the second name in the title of this film, Robert Ford, is a nobody, that is until this film--a film that focuses on the decline of Jessie and his gang and his ultimate death by gun shot. Ford pulled the trigger.

I could use the word legend in describing James but I'm torn. On the one hand, he's mythical and mystery in the way legendary figures are, but he's scum and to my mind legend connotes admirable qualities. Criminals like him shouldn't be admired, but that's too naive. Politicians lie and cheat, and after they've died, we name parks and schools after them, Shakespeare writes plays about them and Hollywood makes movies.

That James should be killed, a wanted man, in his home, with his wife in the other room, and live on in stories, while his assassin is ridiculed and eventually murdered, even sentenced to hang for the shooting, is the ironic aspect of this true life story. It's the reason, I suspect, this film was made because it reflects on today's society.

People want fame and riches. That's what Ford sought in killing James, amongst retribution for his humiliation, and he had it for a moment, but instead of peace and happiness, it led to misery. That's the film in a nutshell but it takes two hours and forty minutes to tell it. Too long.

The director was in love with long panoramic shots of the sky filled with clouds. One is enough. Two, three, well...self-indulgent comes to mind.

Beyond the few scenes with horses and revolvers (six-shooters), there isn't much about the film that fits into the typical Hollywood Western. It's not an action film and we know a part of the ending based on the title. It's a film about James's decline and the arc of Ford.

Ford and James are the one-two, two-one characters of this story, yet Casey Affleck was nominated in the supporting category for the Oscars. The last twenty minutes of the film focuses on his life after he shot James. The film ends with his murder. That's a supporting role? Go figure.

One final note. The film includes a voice-over narrative that reminded me of a PBS documentary or the narrator from the television series THE WALTONS. I say again, it's not an action film. Think. It's cerebral.

Okay, it wasn't a final word. I should mention the editing and filming. Part of the reason the film is long is a choice of the director to have long takes. In one scene a group of local police ride in on horse to surround a farmhouse where one of the gang members is living. The camera sits by the house watching as they appear in the horizon and proceed down a snow-covered field. No cuts. It's the kind of style David Lean is known for and from another era. Today films don't hold the camera for very long. The mantra is cut, cut, cut. In the climax of BAD BOYS, the cuts happen every second! The rhythm is like a swaying metronome.

Posted 2009/02/25 at 19h04ET in Movie Commentary.

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