By Don Simpson | September 28, 2007
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik (screenplay), Ron Hansen (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell
Fans of the western genre have been haunted by tumbleweeds while suffering in a desert of blandness for many a year (with the exception of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Now there are two well-made films shooting from the hip with gratuitous star power that share a kind resemblance to the films of the 1960s and 1970s heyday of the genre. Boy howdy! There promises to be a box-office showdown in September 2007.
3:10 to Yuma is a faithful remake of a well-crafted classic. It is a fine film, with worthwhile performances by Christian Bale and Russell Crowe; but what is the purpose of remaking a film that is already a classic? At the very least, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an original to the silver screen (it is adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name).
The Assassination of Jesse James is the more experimental of the two films with its intriguing (yet occasionally annoying) camera effects, off-kilter camera angles, slow pacing and tendency toward the quirkiness of its characters. In all aspects it is much more reminiscent of the respectable westerns of the 1960s and 1970s.
Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, who, along with his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), joins the James gang as they are preparing for their final train robbery. Robert grew up admiring the James gang, especially Jesse James (Brad Pitt), faithfully reading about their escapades in dime novels and press clippings hidden underneath his bed. When the Ford brothers happen upon Jesse and Frank James (Sam Shepard), the only remaining James in the gang, they are well beyond their heyday; mere shadows of their former selves, and they know it.
After the train robbery, they retire from robbery and go their separate ways. Jesse slowly goes insane, fluctuating from paranoia to unbridled kindness to sheer lunacy. Believing that his old crew has turned against him, he begins to kill them one by one.
This would be a spoiler, but as the title blatantly suggests (diffusing any sort of suspenseful climax), Robert eventually kills Jesse. He assumes that the entire country would consider him a hero for assassinating such a notorious criminal; instead everyone considers him a coward for killing a hero of the people, their Robin Hood.
Unfortunately, The Assassination of Jesse James leans much too heavily upon the crutch of the all-knowing narrator. This would have been a near brilliant film without the imposing voiceover; instead it opts to verbally over-explain the actors’ emotions rather than trust their acting skills.