- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on www.commonsensemedia.org.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Rating: R

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 15 and older.

*****(out of five stars)

Running time: 152 minutes

Common Sense review: By turns brutal and lyrical, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” contemplates the phenomenon of celebrity from various perspectives. Opening on the first encounter between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his eventual killer, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), it traces the strange and fitful rhythms of their relationship.

At the time of this fateful meeting, 34-year-old Jesse and his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), are planning the James Gang’s final train robbery. Bob, just 19, makes his way through the woods where the gang is camped, eagerly asking each brother if he might become a “sidekick.” Summarily dismissed by Frank and all but ignored by Jesse, Bob doesn’t understand that his inexperience is a sign of the gang’s demise.

Still believing in the James Gang dime novels he has read since his childhood, Bob tags along with his slightly less enamored brother, Charlie (Sam Rockwell), performing menial labor and eventually insinuating himself into Jesse’s story until he appears undeniable, even inevitable.

Based on Ron Hansen’s 1997 novel “Assassination,” the film suggests that Jesse’s celebrity, even more than his crimes or his violent nature, leads to his dreadful end. All of this makes for an environment that reflects the inner lives of both Jesse and Bob, neither able to shake the other. Bob’s obsession is never explosive; rather, the movie adopts a melancholy tone, creeping toward the moment when Jesse essentially will invite his sidekick to put him out of his misery.

Afterward, Bob and Charlie go on the road, performing and re-performing the assassination onstage hundreds of times. Though Bob yearns for the adulation he felt for his victim, he’s instead reviled. Though the film loses a kind of pulsing energy when Jesse is dead, that’s partly the point: Bob’s life also ends at the moment he tries to take control of it. He loses himself to the celebrity — the idea and the man — he so covets.

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that teens may be drawn to this violent, mature Western by star Brad Pitt. Families can talk about the enduring appeal of “bad boys.” Why do society and the media tend to glorify outlaws like Jesse James? How do you think the way people like James are presented in movies and TV shows differs from how they were in real life? How does the film interpret (and complicate) the definition of what a hero is?

Sexual content: Heavy verbal flirting between a man and a married woman. Sexy feather-fan dance at end of film.

Language alert: Some foul language is sprinkled throughout the film.

Violence alert: The film’s frequent violence is awkward rather than exciting, with a focus on its bloody effects. Shootouts are ragged, with many misses and falls as well as bloody injuries. Beatings and a shootout during a train robbery. Trying to get information from a boy, Jesse hits him hard and repeatedly.

Social-behavior alert: All of the male protagonists are robbers and killers; women serve only as supportive spouses.

Drug/alcohol/tobacco alert: Much drinking and cigarette or cigar smoking by men in saloons.

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