Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is a notorious criminal with almost legendary status. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has looked up him since childhood and attempts to join his gang, but over the years grows to resent his idol.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (herein referred to as The Assassination of Jesse James) is a an appropriately long title for a film clocking in at nearly three hours. However, it’s a film that uses almost every minute of that run time wisely to help construct fascinating characters and an absorbing world in which they exist.

See, The Assassination of Jesse James has an almost fairytale-like quality, with Jesse a Robin Hood type figure widely revered despite his criminal activity. This paints him as a clear anti-hero, clearly the most identifiable character in the film. Showing Jesse also as a family man, caring for his children is a lovely touch, allowing for a much deeper character. Conversely, Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford instantly becomes the most dislikeable character in the film, portrayed as a snivelling two-faced sycophant.

Much of the praise for the characterisation has to go to the actors. Both Pitt and Affleck are excellent; Pitt’s laid-back, almost nonchalant performance superbly contrasts with Affleck’s eagerness, whilst others such as Sam Rockwell and Jeremy Renner also turn in good performances, which again adds to the depth of the film.

It’s got to be said that The Assassination of Jesse James is not a film to sling on if you want some light-hearted, mindless entertainment. It’s long and deliberately slow paced, demanding your attention from the first minute to the last. It does occasionally meander a little too much, losing a little focus, but these moments are few and fleeting. As such, it may even warrant a second viewing to truly appreciate everything it offers.

And one of the things that really does deserve to be appreciated is the film’s stunning cinematography. There’s a brooding, ethereal quality to the film which adds to the fairytale-like atmosphere. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is outstanding, with every shot a work of art that deserves to be appreciated.

What’s interesting about the The Assassination of Jesse James is that you already know how it’s going to end; it says so in the title. But the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ aren’t really what’s important here. What’s important is the ‘why’. The film is a journey, more of Robert Ford’s than Jesse James’s, and it’s interesting to see how all of the minutiae add up to form the climax you know is on its way.

It may be long and it may be demanding, but it’s well worth the effort.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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56 thoughts on “Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

  1. Zoë says:

    I liked this one, should actually check it out again. Nice review!

  2. Mark Walker says:

    Great review Chris. I too found that it meandered slightly, stopping it from becoming a full 5 star experience. Still a very solid movie though.

  3. Colin says:

    A terrific character study, and one of the best latter day westerns.

  4. elina says:

    Great review. I know this film by the title only but judging by your review, it seems like it is worth a watch – or maybe two, then. Both Jessse James and Robert Ford seem like very interesting characters as well – though I feel like the first is more interesting… hm. Okay, adding this to my watchlist. :D Thanks for sharing, Chris!

  5. keith7198 says:

    This is one of those movies that I’ve herd SO much about but I’ve never caught up with it. I really need to do that.

  6. Ryan says:

    Great review. Criminally underrated imo. The cinematography alone makes this one worth checking out.

  7. theipc says:

    I like this movie – a lot – but damn it took almost an entire day to get through it…

  8. Dan Heaton says:

    I think the acting is great and the cinematography is gorgeous, though it left me a bit cold. That is by design, I expect, and it’s definitely one of the more interesting westerns to come out in recent years. I need to check it out again.

    • I suspect you may feel warmer to it second time around, although there I can see why it did leave you cold. It’s not the most welcoming of films, perhaps because you know right from the start that this lovable rogue figure is going to get his comeuppance.

  9. CMrok93 says:

    A little long, but always a treat to just look at. That, and the ensemble is pretty damn awesome. Good review.

  10. I think this is a fantastic western and love your review! The cinematography really grabbed me. I liked how they burned the edges of the shot composition to look like something antique. The contrasts with the train and smoke–oh, it was a joy to watch.

  11. Absolutely love this film (and the review). A real game changer from Dominik and Pitt’s best performance.

  12. ruth says:

    It’s funny but I had just been reading about Jesse James on Wikipedia last week and was intrigued to see this one. I definitely would give this a look Chris, though I have to find the right time as it’s quite a long movie.

  13. ianthecool says:

    I’m one of the few people who disliked this movie.

  14. Nick Powell says:

    Real big coincidence. I watched this last night for the 4th time or so. Finally got the girlfriend to watch it. It’s in my top 10 of all time. So gorgeous, incredible music, and Casey Affleck can act like a mad man. I always told people I was a huge fan of his, but they never understood why. Then I point them this way and they’re floored. So happy you love it!

    • Affleck is such an underrated actor. He’s been really good in most things I’ve seen him in – probably comes from having an uber famous brother. I dunno where this’d be in my all time favourites, but I imagine it would creep higher and higher the more I watch it. Seems like one of those kinds of films.

  15. ckckred says:

    Nice review. Great film, a bit overlong, but very well done. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is really outstanding.

  16. vinnieh says:

    Great post, I have heard so many good things about the cinematography in this film.

  17. Tyson Carter says:

    Still never seen it for some reason. I will do, I know I’ll love it since I like the era and the actors. Just time :)

  18. sati says:

    Great review! This is one of my all time favorites, such a perfect film. The score, the acting…I hope one day they will release Director’s Cut

  19. table9mutant says:

    Hmm. Hadn’t planned on watching this but maybe I better if you liked it! Nice review. :-)

  20. le0pard13 says:

    I’m with Mark on this. A little meandering, but a solid, modern western. Great review, Chris.

  21. Nice review Chris. I think it’s a great film too, glad to read about it once again. Affleck is really good, probably his best performance to date. He had a good run of three excellent performances with Gone Baby Gone and The Killer Inside Me…I haven’t seen anything else of his recently though.

  22. Nostra says:

    I remember seeing this for the first time and just switching it off as I couldn’t get into it at all. Second time around I couldn’t understand why I did that the first time. Like you say the cinematography is stunning and the movie is a true joy to watch.

    • Ya know, I can totally understand anyone who doesn’t get through this the first time. It’s very slow and I think you have to be in the right frame of mind for it. Glad you gave it another shot though man, it’s well worth it.

  23. Naomi says:

    Great review, Chris! Love this film and it’s a treat to see both PItt (who is rather inconsistent as an actor, IMO) and the wonderful Affleck. And definitely a beautifully shot film, I like how you mentioned the fairytale-like quality of it, I couldn’t agree more.

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