3:10 to Yuma v The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I liked both of these movies immensely and recommend each highly. They are both exceedingly well-acted, well-shot, well-directed and well-written. But it’s a bad idea to go into one expecting the other. 3:10 to Yuma is a serious, thoughtful, intricately structured, multi-layered yarn of the Olde West, very conscious of its burden of resurrecting an outmoded genre, full of gorgeous landscapes, men on horses, sunlight on hat-brims, railroads under construction, ranchers being forced off their lands, stagecoach robberies, Pinkertons, encroaching civilization, outlaw gangs, cattle drives, a boy who goes on a journey and learns to be a man, Chinese coolies, black hats and white hats and deep thoughts about the delicate razor’s edge the law must walk in a lawless land. It’s not just a classic Western, it attempts to be all classic Westerns, with a dozen different plot turns, smashing character work from all the principles, every scene packed with terrific production design, period detail and realistic lighting. It’s an exciting drama, a rousing Wild West thriller and a well-written character study.

The Assassination of Jesse James is a whole different ball of wax. It has a few gorgeous landscapes, and it does have men on horses, but there is very little sunlight on hat-brims. The railroads are already built, no ranchers are being forced off their lands, there is not a single stagecoach robbery (although there is a wonderful train robbery) or Pinkerton in evidence. A boy does go on a journey and learns to be a man, but in this case the boy is Robert Ford and manhood turns out to be not all it’s cracked up to be. There is, of necessity, an outlaw gang, but the gang is examined so closely, in such minute, well-chosen detail that it never seems like a recapitulation of cliche. In fact, if there is a cliche contained within the execution of The Assassination of Jesse James I am hard-pressed to remember it. Let’s face it, it’s barely even a Western at all, more like a character study, a psychological portrait, a close reading of the last days of an American legend. “Elegaic” and “lyrical” don’t really cover the unsettling beauty and spectral weirdness of this deeply original movie.

If you go to see The Assassination of Jesse James expecting it to be like 3:10 to Yuma, it will probably seem sluggish, tedious and pretentious in comparison. If, however, you go to see 3:10 to Yuma expecting it to be like The Assassination of Jesse James, Yuma will seem shallow, busy and over-plotted in comparison.

THE SCRIPTS: Honestly, these are probably two of the best scripts I’ve seen shot this year. 3:10 has a terrific plot, full of suspense, intrigue and (my favorite) plenty of questions to ask about Good and Evil. The bad guy is one of the best bad-guys I’ve seen in a movie in a long time, kind of a Hannibal Lecter of the Old West, a man dangerous not so much because of his actions but because of the thoughts in his head, his ability to turn people against each other and to get under the skin of the nicest, most honest people. He inspires hate, fear and admiration in equal measure and all of the scenes between him and the rancher whose duty it becomes to escort him to the titular train are rich, deep and evocative. Assassination, on the other hand, has very little “plot” to speak of and an ending announced in the title. Plus a running time 45 minutes longer than Yuma. And yet, with a gun to my head (something that happens a lot in both movies) I would have to give Assassination the edge on script, because it’s trying something much more daring, original and difficult. It’s a biographical drama that does not stoop to the audience’s expectations of biography. It does not bend the story of a man’s life to “make a better movie,” rather it simply shows “what happened,” and there happens to be a camera there at the time. This is a difficult trick to pull off, to write a story about a famous historical figure and not have it turn into an episode of Behind the Music, and I have not seen it done well since Mike Leigh’s brilliant Topsy-Turvy. The problem with the approach is that it often seems like the movie has no plot, and so it takes a while for the filmmaker’s narrative strategies to reveal themselves. It doesn’t offer easy answers or tidy resolutions.

THE DIRECTION: I’ve enjoyed most of the James Mangold movies I’ve seen, but the direction in Yuma far surpasses what I’ve seen so far in his work. The shootouts and confrontations are exciting and suspenseful, the actors are all well-directed, the narrative never feels forced or cliched (in spite of containing every Western cliche in the book). I’ve never seen Andrew Dominik’s other movie, Chopper, but the direction of Assassination, as I say, is one of the most original things I’ve seen in movies recently. There wasn’t a single moment where I thought “Ah, and this is the scene where _____ happens.”  In spite of the fact that I know the story of Jesse James and have seen it told on screen at least a half-dozen times, I never had the slightest clue what was going to happen next, except that, eventually, Jesse would have to get shot in the back by Robert Ford while adjusting a picture in his house. Big scenes and little scenes are given equal weight, narrative strands come together in beautiful, unexpected ways, surreal beauty haunts the slightest of inserts.

THE ACTING: Wonderful throughout, but again I’m giving the edge to Assassination, partly because, goddamn it, why are two parts as good as the leads in Yuma being played by an Englishman and an Australian?  (UPDATE: a Welshman and a Kiwi.  I stand corrected.  Damn furners.)  The leads in Assassination are played by two nice American boys, Brad Pitt is even from the same state as the character he portrays. Pitt’s finely detailed, intelligent, multi-layered portrait of James didn’t surprise me, he’s been blowing me away on a regular basis since Fight Club, but Casey Affleck as Robert Ford is truly astonishing. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in Yuma are playing “characters,” iconicfigures playing out a grand drama in the West of our consciences, but Pitt and Affleck actually bring Real People to life and add something new and interesting to our understanding of figures who have been examined many times in the past.

THE MUSIC: I was a little disappointed by the score of Yuma — like a lot about the movie, it seemed like an expert recapitulation of classic themes instead of an invention. Whereas the score of Assassination seems both more “authentic” to the time period and more original in its conceit.

Finally, I have to say that the sound design on Assassination is superb, and warrants seeing it in a theater for that reason alone. It’s a very quiet movie about a time before cars, stereos and air conditioners. Far-off laughter, girls singing two houses over, horses hooves in mud, gunshots echoing in a snowy landscape and trains in the misty night are all given detailed, loving attention and go a long way to bringing a lost time to life.

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13 Responses to “3:10 to Yuma v The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”
  1. teamwak says:

    Great stuff!

    I am so looking forward to these two. Its great to see the Western rejuvinated.

    I saw an interview with Dominik where he said when he was researching the movie, all the photos he could find didnt seem to show a “Western” but was more Dickensian, with high collars, and watch chains – so thats where he was going with the design on it.

    I saw Chopper years ago. It was fantastic, as was Eric Bana in it.

    And speaking of great actors slugging it out, with a great script and director – I CANT WAIT for Ridley Scotts American Ganster with Crowe and Washington. Time to rejuvinate the gansgter film 🙂

    • Todd says:

      It is true that Assassination does not head very far west, at least by modern standards. It has one scene set in Colorado, and even then it’s in winter so it feels more like Alberta than Colorado (unsurprising, as the movie was shot entirely in Canada — nowhere in the US looks like the 19th century any more). Most of the movie is set in Missouri, which probably was more Victorian than “Old West” by the 1880s. In fact, I don’t think there’s a single cowboy hat in the whole movie.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I wonder how Assassination compares to Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James. If it ever deigns to show up in my area, I’ll be sure to find out for myself.

    • Todd says:

      I haven’t seen the Fuller picture, although I’ve been meaning to, but it seems to be, philosophically anyway, at the polar opposite. Assassination is about a shamefaced coward who cuts down a great man, and I Shot is about a man who had to do what he had to do to rid society of a deranged psychopath.

      • craigjclark says:

        Not exactly. I don’t know what you’ve read about I Shot Jesse James, but it’s mostly about a shamefaced coward who thinks cutting James down will make Ford a great man (or at the very least it will allow him to collect the sizable reward, get amnesty for his crimes and marry his sweetheart), but instead it turns him into a pariah. And believe it or not, the James of Fuller’s film is more of a homebody than anything else.

  3. I don’t mean it as a criticism, more as a wry observation, but the Englishman and the Australian you mention are, in fact, a Welshman and a New Zealander. 😉

  4. rxgreene says:

    Chopper is chilling throughout, well paced, and all the scarier because the thing is true. Eric Bana is a terror in this movie – he’s scared of himself half of the time to be honest. An amazing performance. Please, watch it when you get the chance.

    • Todd says:

      There’s a little bit of that in Assassination — Jesse James is cool, collected, at ease and self-contained — except in those moments when he’s not, where he is, as you describe, scared even of himself, when he does things even he doesn’t even understand.

  5. mikeyed says:

    I have yet see either of them, but…

    I had just recently watched The Proposition for the first time and loved it, so when I saw the trailer for 3:10 to Yuma I balked. I really loved The Proposition and that movie looks like a poor substitute. I thought Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone were amazing.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I have yet see either of them, but…

      I’ve got The Proposition sitting here on my desk, waiting to be watched. I wanted to see it in the theater but it went by too fast. If it helps, Nick Cave is on hand for Assassination, both composing the fine music and showing up in a cameo as a busker.

      I would say that, in our current movie landscape, 3:10 to Yuma qualifies as a poor substitute for not much, except maybe Unforgiven or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. That is to say, it’s really quite good. I didn’t see the trailer you’re referring to, but I think the ad campaign for Yuma has been quite substandard, almost as though the studio was embarrassed to say they were releasing a solid, classically-structured, old-fashioned Western.

      • mikeyed says:

        Re: I have yet see either of them, but…

        Well, I’ll see anything with Christian Bale in it, so I will definitely have to check it out with such an enthusiastic stamp of success as you have given it.

  6. Todd says:

    Re: 3:10 to Yuma

    We’re just lucky phones hadn’t been invented yet — he would have hit the hotel desk clerk with one.