Arts & Life


What may seem like an oxymoron hits movie theaters today, an art house Western. And it's got a title to match its lengthy running time, it's called "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Bob Mondello says it more than justifies its time on the screen.

BOB MONDELLO: We all know about the price of fame, but what about the price of infamy? Gunslingers Frank and Jesse James were celebrities in 1881 - despised by the law, but heroes to a host of nobodies. After reading nickel novels, many dreamed of riding with the James Gang. Robert Ford, for instance, a weaselly, picked-on 19-year-old.

(Soundbite of movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. CASEY AFFLECK (Actor): (As Robert Ford) Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make. I always thought of myself as being from the wrong town with the James brothers. I honestly believe I'm destined for great things, Mr. James. I got qualities that don't come shining through right at the offset.

MONDELLO: Ford is talking to Frank James and gets a dismissive rejection.

(Soundbite of movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. SAM SHEPARD (Actor): (As Frank James): I don't know what it is about you. But the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.

MONDELLO: But Frank's brother, Jesse, is sort of amused by young Bob's hero-worship - amused enough to keep the kid around. And when paranoia strikes, which it often does, to keep him close. Maybe too close. One day, Jesse's soaking in a tub, his back to the door, when he senses Bob behind him.

(Soundbite of movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Jesse James) Go away.

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Robert Ford) It used to be, could no one sneak up on Jesse James.

Mr. PITT: (As Jesse James) Now, you think otherwise.

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Robert Ford) I ain't never seen you without your guns, neither.

MONDELLO: Never turning around, Jesse moves a towel, revealing his gun.

(Soundbite of movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. PITT: (As Jesse James) I can't figure it out. Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?

MONDELLO: The sort of Oedipal question a father might ask a son, no? Now, when a movie gives away as much in its title as this one does, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a filmmaker had better have something besides plot up his sleeve. What writer-director Andrew Dominik has is a psychological landscape as weirdly mythic as the one his camera keeps sweeping majestically across. Brad Pitt's paranoid Jesse James, with his easy grin and steely gaze, is a perfect match for Casey Affleck's needy, creepy, high-school-shooter of a Robert Ford.

Pitt won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Fest, but it's Affleck you can't take your eyes off, especially once he's made up his mind to kill his hero, and has to deal with the twists that fate throws his way, a fateful gift from that hero, for instance, a gun.

(Soundbite of movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford")

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Robert Ford) Oh, such extravagance.

Mr. PITT: (As Jesse James) Well, I figured that granddaddy Colt of yours may blow into fragments the next time you try to squeeze the trigger.

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Robert Ford) Well, you might have something there.

Mr. PITT: (As Jesse James) You know what John Newman Everett once wrote about me? He said I didn't trust two men in ten thousand. Even them, I was cautious around.

MONDELLO: Notice that in apologizing for being paranoid, Jesse is citing not his own feelings, but how he's described in news accounts. This Jesse James believes his own press - cares about his infamy as it's depicted in the media -in a Western that's no longer behaving much like a traditional Western. After the title coward kills the title outlaw on Easter Sunday - if you like your parallels non-contemporary - there's still 40 minutes of movie left. Young Bob Ford will himself become a celebrity, and fame will meet infamy for one final struggle - one that suggests a link to Greek tragedy.

And while it's a rare film, let alone a rare Western, that can support that kind of baggage, I'd say "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is it.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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