The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


(2007) ★★

ITV4: Friday 3 July, 11.10pm

Even Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, second only to Phil Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid as the best James Gang movie, fell prey to viewing Jesse James through a prism. And Brad Pitt’s soulful take on America’s most famous outlaw gives its game away right up front: The Assassination…? As if Jesse James was some kind of statesman, rather than an unrepentant killer. Lincoln was assassinated. And so were the Kennedys. Jesse James was shot in the back, a bully gunned down by a coward. This pernickety, self-consciously stylised western, so drained of colour it might as well, like Johnny Depp’s Dead Man, have been shot in black and white, has an artiness that’s almost abstract (also like Johnny Depp’s Dead Man). With its prissily Biblical narration and its determination to place Jesse in an elemental landscape (like Richard Gere in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven), it aggrandizes a train robber who killed people who got in his way. Incidentally, the mournfully sensitive music on the soundtrack makes no sense in this context. What we’re shown is constantly at odds with the purple narration eulogizing the man. And it’s not as if these characters are complex. With the exception of Paul Schneider’s literate and flirtatious Dick Liddel, they’re dullards. Envious of Confederate outlaw Jesse’s celebrity, Robert Ford (the excellent Casey Affleck) tells his brother: “He’s just a human being.” A sorry excuse for one, at that. If in doubt, take a look at The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Now that’s a western – one that comes to bury Jesse James, not praise him. Nick Cave’s presence late on (as a balladeer singing Jesse’s praises) serves only to underline how much his own skewed take on the Ned Kelly legend in his fierce film The Proposition could have benefitted the producers of this one. One of them’s Ridley Scott, who made his own suspect contribution to the culture of criminal celebrity in American Gangster.

Certificate: 15

Duration: 160min

Other Showings Time & Date
ITV4 Sunday, 5 July at 10:00PM