The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Those with memories of an idealized Jesse James as played by Tyrone Power in the 1939 film are in for a vastly different — but satisfying — experience with this latest cinematic incarnation of the famous Western outlaw.

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.), based on the novel by Catholic author Ron Hansen, is an unusual and compelling dramatization of the circumstances that led up to the 1882 shooting of the notorious bandit, played here with impressively mercurial mood shifts by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film. Calm and charming one moment, he's laughing maniacally the next.

His killer would be Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a junior member of Jesse's own gang, who at the film's start longs to be part of the group, like his older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell). He had grown up idolizing Jesse, with treasured dime novels of his exploits kept under his bed.

The 19-year-old Robert, or Bob as he's mostly called, is brushed off as little more than a pest by the other gang members, including Jesse's brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), who's about to retire from a life of crime. But Bob's persistence eventually wins over Jesse, who takes him in and allows him to be part of the Blue Cut train robbery, and afterward to help him change houses.

Jesse's glory days are pretty much behind him, and the robbing of that train — on which he shows great brutality in handling the sympathetic official guarding the safe in the luggage compartment, is his last robbery. Thereafter he lives in anonymity under the name Thomas Howard, a churchgoing man with a wife (Mary Louise-Parker) and two small children.

But his presence is still formidable, and the gang members, including Jesse's cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), womanizer Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), and Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), still live in fear that Jesse might get wise to any treachery. (Jesse's interrogation of a quivering Miller at one point is superbly played.)

Always aware that his life might be in danger, Jesse seemed to have a sixth sense about when to change houses and move on. But as fate would have it, he was gunned down while dusting a picture on his wall, unarmed at that fateful moment.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik tells the story intelligently and at a controlled pace with penetrating close-ups of his excellent cast — Affleck is particularly outstanding — to probe psychological motivations. Did Bob envy Jesse? Did he wish to become Jesse? Had his admiration turned to anger? Was he afraid of him? Was he just after the reward money?

The film, though speculative, lets you contemplate every angle, as well as exploring the nature of celebrity and hero worship, and far from ending with Jesse's fatal shooting, the film goes on to chronicle the vaudeville re-enactments of the crime performed by Bob afterward.

The violence is relatively restrained by today's standards, and presented with an admirable realism devoid of glamorization. The lingering death of one shooting victim is strikingly different from the "bang, bang, you're dead" mode of so many films.
There's a moral gravity to everyone's actions here, and even some spiritual reflections, as when Jesse ruminates on life "on the other side."

The film unfolds at a leisurely 160 minutes, but should reward those not expecting a standard Western shoot-'em-up.

The film contains some crude language and profanity, innuendo, a nongraphic sexual encounter, several shooting deaths with blood and scenes of physical violence, suicide, and brief rear male nudity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Guest

    Jesse James was a violent psychopath, the last vestige of the violent, lawless William Quantrill Civil War guerrilla band. This was the same group that shot up Lawrence, Kansas in August, 1863, indiscriminately shooting down scores of unarmed men and boys. Quantrill's death at the hands of Union soldiers in a shootout in May, 1865 didn't end his legacy. It was continued by the James and Younger brothers who would not admit defeat. They continued their "war" by preying on banks and trains that, in their minds, represented everything they had despised about the Union. The History Channel a few years ago produced excellent documentaries on both Quantrill and the James gang. As to feature films it doesn't get any better than "The Long Riders" (made in 1980) with the Carradine brothers (playing the Youngers), and Stacey and James Keach as Frank and Jesse James. Be forewarned: this film, too, is rated "R" for graphic violence. Not sure if I want to see this latest violent Jesse James shoot 'em up to remind me yet again of how far human nature can plunge into the depths of depravity.

  • Guest

    God loves you .

    So, dennis, are we saying here that these folk were early-to-middling manifestations of Satan’s ability to help form such as Nazi SS, Stalin’s KGB, Mao’s ‘cultural’ revolutionaries, etc., ad nauseam? Maybe, we can throw in the Jacobins as an ‘inspiration’ of such ways, and see the ‘en-dark-ening’ side of the Enlightenment.

    I have a grandson who reminds me just who shoot-em-up pictures should be made for, and as a ‘PG’ fare.

    For adults, if the Follywoodites should look to ‘inspiring’ fare, they could look to Butler’s Lives to start with, and work their scripts beyond the hagiographic to the richly (truthful) contemplative. Maybe, then I’d pay some saw-buck(!) to see a movie.

    Remember, I love you, too .

    In the Suffering of Christ, and in His hope of His Resurrection,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell or …

  • Guest

    Seems easy for some to forget the young James's participation in the Missouri Civil War began at the ripe old age of 16. This was a guerilla war, savage, particularly brutal and very personal between neighbors on different sides of the conflict. I wonder how some of these critics would have turned out if they had fought for their families and friends on "the good side" at that age and lost.

  • Guest

    As a current border citizen (definitively on the Union/Kansas side) I find this movie pretty good fare. As much as I enjoy the "pure" religious films of Christ, apostles, priests, etc. I find the more morally complex films such as this refreshing. I have done a great amount of research as a hobby on much of the Jesse James story for a couple reasons: 1. My in-laws are all "James'" descendants from Missouri and 2. My g-great grandfather enlisted in the Union Army in Lawrence in 1863 to fight this war (he survived, married, and lived out his life in Ks).

    Films like this bring us moral challenges that go beyond the literal realities of the events. Vengeance, cowardice, passion, family, war…this is the stuff of our own times.

    PS: The books author also attended the same grade school as I did and so this film is overloaded with special meaning to me!

    Not to mention that Missouri beat my Jayhawks last week!

    Sorry for the personal rant. 

  • Guest

    As a Southron and a student of history of the 19th century, especially during the time of Mr. Lincoln's war, I find these things interesting.  As a side note, it is odd that the name "Jayhawk" would be retained as a team nickname, considering that the "Jayhawkers" were guilty of terrorist raids into Missouri as violent as those of Quantrill's Raiders.  Dennis, you mention the Lawrence, Kansas raid; another one you might also want to consider would be the Jayhawk raid on Osceola, Missouri where they killed at least 9 men, then pillaged, looted, and burned the town.  They also did this to Butler, Harrisonville, and Clinton, Missouri.  Pointing the bony finger of indignation at Quantrill is somewhat short-sighted; in retrospect there is more than enough of that to go around on both sides, but then again, the winners write the history.