The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Jesse Woodson James was murdered 125 years ago, in April 1882, shot from behind by a friend who was one of his greatest admirers. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which opens in limited release today, is taken from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same title. That title serves as a nod to the dime novels that made the James gang the desperado superstars of their era, and in the movie the 20-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) hoards the novels in a box under his bed, along with other James souvenirs. The myth and celebrity of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard, briefly) looms large in the dreams of the Missouri farm boy.

Robert Ford and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) were introduced to Jesse in 1879 or ’80, according to biographies. Charley, the elder brother, became the closer friend, and friends were in short supply for James as his paranoia wound tighter and his purpose dimmed in the last year or two of his life.

All Jesse James movies must have a slant, whether they depict him as heroic but misguided (Henry King’s 1939 Jesse James, starring Tyrone Power) or as a self-aggrandizing and utterly callous thug (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, from 1972). One thing is certain: No matter whether he’s a backwoods Robin Hood or a blithering psychopath, audiences know that Jesse is never going to see his thirty-fifth birthday.

The slant in the new film is that Robert Ford sees an idealized version of himself in Jesse, and in the course of that final year, their new familiarity, which Ford desperately sought, breeds disillusionment and contempt, and possibly something more intriguing. The film picks up as Frank James is leaving the scene and Jesse is working with a new gang, desperately hoping to keep his legend alive by planning new brazen deeds and daring exploits.

But the Civil War, where Jesse served his apprenticeship learning butchery and mayhem under Bloody Bill Anderson, and where he acquired his original gang members, is 15 years past. The new gang members, including the Fords, are allying themselves with James out of desperation, boredom, or adulation. James is in love with his own notoriety, but his latest colleagues are for the most part whelps and weasels....

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