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Rated 3.03 stars
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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Before the Legend Became Fact
by Jeffrey Chen

"Revisionist" is a word movie enthusiasts like to attach to Westerns, and I think certainly the word would lend itself well to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film primed to rank amongst other well-known mythbusters of the genre. But I also think such a label could be reductive in this case -- the movie plays very much by its own rules and doesn't seem too concerned about being a Western. It's a character/relationship study about people whose legends loom larger than their real lives. Director Andrew Dominik could've chosen other similar subjects -- heroes and villains from another age or realm -- and the movie might still contain a similar approach, one that feels unique and unconcerned about audience-pleasing.

And yet, the slow, deliberate pace of The Assassination of Jesse James fits it particularly well, in a story involving outlaws constantly hiding out, their trust of each other deteriorating in the face of both the possibility of the wrath of the law and the bullying presence of their larger-than-life leader, Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Due to changing circumstances, Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) need to recuit new men after each job, and for this last one a certain Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) joins up. Robert is young and grew up idolizing Jesse, whose exploits have been exaggerated for heroic effect in dime novels and tall tales, so much to the point where he had become a folk hero even while he lived.

Naturally, Jesse is much different than his celebrity persona -- he's practically paranoid and his murderousness borders on the psychotic side. Tensions mount when the gang hides among civilization, and inter-member feuds flare up. Then whenever Jesse shows up, mindful of any possible betrayal, the tension increases even more dramatically. Dominik lets us get to know the gang, Jesse, and Robert's reactions to the events in particular by moving along at only the required speed, soaking in the details of the surroundings, of the subtle expressions of the characters and their ever-shifting comfort levels. It's a slow roast of a movie that seals in all the flavors.

The technique works extremely well for the film's primary purpose of humanizing the figure of Robert Ford. In Jesse James's mythology, Ford's become a footnote -- as the title says, he's now known as a coward, one who shot James in the back and then tried to capitalize on the fame it would bring him. The movie acknowledges how time and the passing-down of stories turn legends into unquestioned truths; "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend," indeed. It's easy to simplify famous stories but much more difficult to deconstruct.

Thus The Assassination of Jesse James takes its time and gets inside Robert's head. Eventually he and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) are trapped in Jesse's company, practically pressed into service. By this point, the movie had established how shaky Jesse's nature was, and increasingly we understand how hard it must have been to sleep when he was nearby. In terms of character empathy, there are several moments where we're convinced that if we, too, were in Robert's shoes, we would've looked for the chance to shoot Jesse James too.

Not that the film wants badly to rehabilitate Robert Ford's reputation -- it's really just presenting a very plausible scenario so that we might understand the circumstances that lead him to such a "cowardly" act. In the meantime, it also says a thing or two about the tenuousness of human relationships under duress, and, in a larger picture, the nature of celebrated figures and their stories as a whole. It's a recognition of and a lament for the inevitability of the mythmaking machinery.

We may live our life to its most logical endpoint, and end up taking the most sound action at the time, given the circumstances we've been dropped into, and still hindsight has the ability to mold, enhance, and misshape our deeds. The life of an individual will always be a slave to history. This movie is not as interested in debunking Ford's "coward" label as it is in showing us how he was doomed to play the coward's role in the story of a celebrated criminal. Whether this is injustice or just life is for us to sleep on.

(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "R" for some strong violence and brief sexual references.)

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