Friday, 11 April 2008


Me and my Shadow : Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck

Jesse James has had a long film career from the first major film biography starring Tyrone Power and directed by Henry King in 1939, In the fifties this was, more or less remade by director Nicholas Ray as THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES starring Robert Wagner. More versions followed, often bewilderingly close to each other, THE NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, THE LONG RIDERS, FRANK AND JESSE. In between there were films ranging from serials and Roy Rogers B-movies to Samuel Fuller’s offbeat I SHOT JESSE JAMES and a television movie starring Kris Kristofferson. After FRANK AND JESSE in I thought it would be years before anybody would tackle the story of the notorious outlaw brothers. A few years back I read Robert Hansen’s novel THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. It is an amazingly detailed reconstruction of the final days of the Missouri badman. So detailed that it never occurred to me that it might be the basis for a new film, let alone one starring Brad Pitt. Let it be said that Pitt, who had a hand in the production, is an excellent choice as Jesse. Unlike most films based on Western heroes and villains THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES makes no attempt to be an action film. It is a mood piece, a tone poem – exquisitely photographed and superbly acted, perfectly capturing the period. The film concentrates on the relationship between Jesse and his biggest fan – the wannabe outlaw Robert Ford. In an early scene Ford offers his services to Jesse’s brother Frank, and Frank (superbly played by Sam Shepard), sensing Ford’s unhealthy obsession, rejects him and humiliates him (a scene reminiscent of the humiliation of Robert and his brother Charley by Frank and Jesse in the earlier THE LONG RIDERS.) The film, justifiably, treats Jesse James like a modern day celebrity and it is not difficult to think of the murder of John Lennon by a killer looking for fame. Jesse seems to be playing Ford like a fish on a line and there is the suggestion, inevitable in the context of the story being told and perhaps in history itself, that Jesse accepts his own death and even welcomes it. At one point Jesse asks Ford “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me ?” and taunts Ford by hinting that he (Ford) may have a sexual motivation. The scenes after Jesse’s death, detailing Ford’s life, are fascinating, although rather anti-climatic and the motives of his own killer are somewhat sketchily dealt with in a way that while being dramatically satisfying will send the curious scurrying for a copy of Hansen’s novel. I’ve always rated Brad Pitt as an actor, without being a particular fan of all his films but here he is superb at conveying the unpredictable nature of Jesse’s paranoia – a celebrity killer, feared by his own cohorts; the Ronnie Kray of his day. Casey Affleck is excellent as “the dirty little coward who shot Mr.Howard” , particularly in the scenes leading up to the murder of Jesse – you feel every beat of his heart and sweat every bead of perspiration. For me, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD directed by Andrew Dominik is a major achievement and one of the great American films so far this century. Rating *****

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