A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that teens may be drawn to this violent, mature Western by star Brad Pitt. Leading up to the titular event, viewers see bleeding wounds and seeping heads, arguments that end in shootouts, fistfights and hostile wrestling, and an intense train robbery. You can also expect some language ("s--t," "pecker," "bitch," etc.), sexual insinuations, cigarette smoking, and hard liquor drinking (the latter are both accurate for the movie's 1880s "Wild West" setting).
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What's the story?
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, James (Sam Shepard), are planning the James Gang's final train robbery. Bob, just 19, asks to become a "sidekick," but is dismissed by Frank and all but ignored by Jesse. The film's narrator (Hugh Ross) lets us know that the only reason the gang is a little thin is because original members are dead or in prison. Still believing in the James Gang dime novels he's read since his childhood, Bob tags along with his slightly less-enamored brother, Charlie (Sam Rockwell), eventually insinuating himself into Jesse's story until he appears undeniable, even inevitable.
Is it any good?
Roger Deakins' cinematography is heartbreakingly beautiful, alternately blurred and precise, the colors autumnal, the shadows long and evocative. Based on Ron Hansen's 1997 novel, Assassination suggests that Jesse's celebrity, even more than his crimes or his violent nature, leads to his dreadful end. The visuals make for an environment that reflects the inner lives of both Jesse and Bob, neither able to shake the other. "I can't figure it out," Jesse says, "You want to be like me or be me?" Jesse finds it difficult to give up "night-riding" and becomes increasingly paranoid. When he moves his children and wife, Zee (Mary-Louise Parker), to a cottage in Missouri, he feels restless, riding out occasionally to murder former gang members. These visits are turned into poetic vignettes, the camera close on the men's faces as they anticipate their fate, while Jesse remains unnervingly calm and decided.
At last landing on Bob and Charlie's doorstep, Jesse looks almost resigned when he hears Bob list "the many ways that you and I overlap and whatnot" (they share the same height, blue eyes, number of brothers, etc.). But Bob's obsession is never explosive; rather, the movie adopts a melancholy tone, creeping toward the moment when Jesse will essentially invite his "sidekick" to put him out of his misery, turning his back so that Bob can aim the new nickel-plated gun that Jesse gave him. Afterward, Bob and Charlie go on the road, performing and re-performing the assassination on stage hundreds of times (it's a little unnerving that Charlie plays Jesse and so "dies" repeatedly by his brother's hand). Though Bob yearns for the adulation he felt for his victim, he's instead reviled, a proto-tabloid figure who's mocked and resented. 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.
Talk to your kids about ...
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?
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