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The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford has a heck of a climax. You’ll never guess who kills who.

It’s a deliberately-paced, long, slow, film with little action. And I really liked it, perhaps even loved it. It’s not at all a traditional Western despite traditional Western subjects and characters, but much more a study of obsession and idolatry.

It’s late in the career of the James brothers, Frank and Jesse. The gang that rose to fame with them is long dispersed and they have been running with a loose gang of Missouri locals. One last big train heist will signal retirement for Frank and a downshift into a slower life for Jesse. Part of the gang are brothers Charley and Robert Ford. Charley is a full-fledged member of the gang while Bob is more of a support player, hanging back and watching with adoration.

Bob’s the kind of guy who has idolized Jesse James since he was a child. He has a box full of James memorabilia under his bed and can reel of a list of statistics of how he and his idol are alike. Bob’s Jesse James is a larger-than-life hero, the stuff of dime store novels and kids playing in the schoolyard. He’s somewhat dismayed to find the real Jesse doesn’t match the man he thinks he knows so well.

An invitation to Bob from Jesse to hang around at his home after the robbery plasters a smile on his face, even though he’s used for nothing but hard labor. His mind starts cranking, even imagining himself as a surrogate member of the family- until Jesse sends him on his way.

And so the hero image begins to fade. Subsequent interactions with Jesse further erode that image. He’s something of a bully and gets on Bob’s case for idolizing him so much. “Do you want to be like me,” Jesse asks him pointedly, “Or be me?” Over time Bob’s adoration fades, but the obsession does not. If he cannot be Jesse’s sidekick, he can at least be the man to bring him down. Read the rest of this entry »

February 2020
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