A Review of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

I finally got around to seeing it, last night, and felt compelled for some reason to record my impressions. Which lie, for you should you care, right after the jump.

First and foremost: the film is way, way too long.

It’s also ponderous and plodding.

I quite like quiet films. But the basic trouble here is, nothing much happens for the first two hours and twenty minutes. Oh, sure, things happen: there’s a train robbery, and at some point someone gets shot. But I didn’t care about any of it.

Because here’s what really happens for the first two hours and twenty minutes: people talk. More specifically, young men talk (this is such a “young male” film), and what’s worse, they exposit endlessly, all of it in numbing shot-reverse-shot.

Which, as far as shot-reverse-shot goes (not far), doesn’t look entirely terrible. Roger Deakins was commanding the camera, and some of the film’s low-light photography is pretty.

One such moment—one of the only such moments.

But it’s all still fairly boring, not to mention relentlessly sepia-toned. I must confess, I tuned out more than once.

(When will someone in Hollywood have the courage to shoot a period piece on video? Which is also to ask, when will someone in Hollywood possess courage equal to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet?)

Some other things that repeatedly happen throughout the film:

Here’s what also happened: I doodled a lot in my tablet.

(Roger Deakins didn’t shoot Miller’s CrossingBarry Sonnenfeld did—although we might be forgiven for forgetting that fact these days—but more than once while watching TAoJJbtCRF I wondered, “Is Deakins trying to retroactively claim Miller’s Crossing somehow?”)

"Wheat: The Movie"

Brad Pitt as Sam Shepard in "The Assassination of Terrence Malick by the Coward Andrew Dominik." (Sam Shepard, of course, is also on hand, as Frank James.)

Moving on, or perhaps identifying the primary flaw: like most contemporary Hollywood films, what we have here is a movie where simply everything—all information—is related through the dialogue. Hardly anything is enacted, or dramatized. (There’s even a voice-over narrator filling in all the gaps, for crissakes!)

Other ways in which this film is typical of contemporary Hollywood:

  • I wasn’t surprised to find no women in the film. (Mary-Louise Parker is glimpsed in the background once or twice. She seems always to be busy making pies.) (I had such a crush on her in the 1990s.)
  • I wasn’t surprised that all adult sexuality is excised from the film, while every moment of violence is depicted in close-up, gory detail. (As I joked to a friend, we get to see a snake’s decapitatation in meticulous detail, but not the sex scene in the privy—even though that latter bit is a major plot point. … I have to wonder sometimes about the minds of today’s Hollywood directors, and why they’re so keen on showing us what they show us.)
  • I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that Andrew Dominik‘s original cut ran 4 hours long. Saints preserve us!

So there’s another film that Dominik had to be thinking of: Heaven’s Gate. Which, despite all its faults (and they are many), is a much better movie than TAoJJbtCRF.

(Isn’t it time we acknowledge that Heaven’s Gate, despite having committed the cardinal Hollywood sin of having lost a lot of people a ton of money, isn’t, actually, all that terrible a picture? Sure, it’s ludicrous at times, and similarly much too long, but it also goes a long way to entertain its audience, which is something Andrew Dominik clearly cares little about.)

Further thoughts:

The actors, one and all, sure did enunciate their dialogue to death (the working title was, “Insanely Mannered Line Readings!”):

Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider): You know, I’m what they call an inamorato.

[…]

Dick Liddil (his performance was the most mannered): They say that when a woman’s on fire, you’re supposed to roll her around on the ground and cover her with your body.

…This is less a complaint than an observation. But more than once I thought of Jack Nance‘s cameo in Wild at Heart:

Another observation: we’re all familiar with the concept of authorial intrusion. But what should we call it when an author keeps inserting his research into a project? This happens a great deal in period pictures, and TAoJJbtCRF is no exception:

Narrator (Hugh Ross): Jesse was sick with rheums, and aches and lung congestions. Insomnia stained his eye sockets like soot. He read auguries in the snarled intestines of chickens, or the blow of cat hair released to the wind. And the omens promised bad luck, which moated and dungeoned him.

[…]

Narrator: Charley was increasingly superstitious, increasingly subject to the advice of soothsayers, who promised to cure his miseries with pipe smoke and poultices.

[…]

Narrator: Another photograph was taken of the renowned American bandit, nestled in his bed of ice. And it was this shot that was most available in sundries and apothecaries, to be viewed in a stereoscope alongside the sphinx, the Taj Mahal, and the catacombs of Rome.

Forgive me for having wondered more than once whether the screenplay had been coauthored by Colin Meloy.

OK, so here’s something that I liked: Nick Cave’s score is very pleasant. I enjoyed listening to it. Indeed, at times, it was the only thing keeping my attention.

Another something: the final twenty minutes or so—everything from the assassination scene onward—are pretty good. I liked all of that fine! The scene immediately following Jesse James’s death—the medical examination and the photographing and all of that—is wonderful. It’s as though Dominik suddenly realized that scenes can convey their information visually, and poetically.

That said, this bit of voice-over narration is excruciatingly bad:

Something began to change in Charley’s stage portrayal of Jesse. His gait seemed more practiced. His voice was spookily similar to the man’s. His newly suggested dialogue was analogous to a script Jesse might have originated. He began to look at his younger brother with spite, as if he suspected that in some future performance, he might present himself to a live cartridge in Robert Ford’s gun.

But most of the rest of the material toward the end is compelling stuff. Suddenly there’s tension, pathos, interest. It’s what the movie should have been.

To be sure, women are still given short shrift—Zooey Deschanel puts in a few minutes in a role as thankless as Mary-Louise Parker’s—

(She's wonderful in her one actual scene, too—which isn't this one.)

—but it’s obvious that the real story is what happened to Robert Ford after he shot Jesse James. Why we have to sit through 140 minutes of the James’s gang’s high school-level politics before that boggles my mind. (I would have cut out an hour’s worth, at least.)

Let’s consider another way in which this movie could have been much better. The scene where Robert Ford shoots Jesse James? It is, as I said, perfectly nice. But what if, instead of seeing the whole thing unfold, we’d cut suddenly from the set-up there to one of the stage reenactments that follow? That would have been pretty daring, huh? (That’s how the recently departed Raúl Ruiz might have chosen to do it!) (Or Jacques Rivette.) (The film, after all, pretends in its last twenty minutes to be concerned with how the assassination was subsequently depicted. I think that, in fact, was the entire film. The narrator tells us that Robert Ford reenacted the shooting thousands and thousands of times; that sounds like a structure to me!)

Another way: what if there was no violence whatsoever until that assassination scene? Or no violence in the film whatsoever? A shocking concept, I know, for these gore-loving times. But think about it: the film is supposedly about the relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford. And so much else in the film is recounted verbally, and not depicted. So what would the film have looked like if we’d never seen James engage in any banditry whatsoever, and were instead simply told about his horrible exploits? And he spent his time baking pies with his wife, and playing with his children? That would have made him a much more complicated, perhaps even sympathetic figure, no?

Another way: what if there was even a single moment of humor in the film? I hated just about every grim second I spent with every grim member of the Jesse James gang, even (after a while) Sam Rockwell‘s character (and when Rockwell’s performance starts getting one note, you know the picture’s in serious trouble). I couldn’t wait for them to begin offing one another!

Andrew Domink may have been 40 years old when he made this picture, but at heart he was a 23-year-old man. (The only way I knew that Christopher Nolan hadn’t directed it was that there weren’t any explosions.)

Of course I will never have my way, but if I did, I’d decree that for the next 100 years, all young white men should be barred from directing movies. Which, ideally, would be directed for the most part by Puerto Rican women. Gay Puerto Rican women, preferably.

Another major problem with this movie: it’s nowhere near as good as The Assassination of Yogi Bear by the Coward Booboo:

Now that’s cinema.

Update: How did I forget to work this in?

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28 thoughts on “A Review of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

  1. Another observation: we’re all familiar with the concept of authorial intrusion. But what should we call it when an author keeps inserting his research into a project?

    I propose material intrusion. But let me know if you have a better suggestion (or if a term already exists).

  2. It’s based on Ron Hansen’s highly meditative book–and matches his pacing, his approach, fairly well. Many of the quotes you cite stick closely to Hansen’s text. The book wasn’t terribly action-laden, and so I suppose to make the movie thus would have been a bit of a betrayal. I didn’t come away with it bored, and in fact was happy to see someone make a film about outlaws that was more somber in tone, as opposed to what we’ve come to expect. Being a poet myself, I suppose I forgave the poeticized nature of the film, derivative as it might have seemed of so many predecessors.

    • Thanks! I suspected those passages were taken from the book.

      I didn’t mind the actual dialogue, mind you: I minded the way it was enacted. And I didn’t need for there to be more action, per se. But there are many other ways to shoot dialogue besides shot-reverse-shot. (And there are other ways to enact a script besides dialogue.)

      When a director limits his actors’ performances to their faces as they deliver line readings, the actors will have little else to do besides e-nun-ci-ate, and make funny expressions.

      Most movies these days strike me as overly somber.

  3. Adam:

    Excellent post, funny, observant and smugly sarcastic (“Wheat: The Movie,” that’s a good one). “TAoJJbtCRF” was by no means my favorite film of 2007, nor even my favorite Western (James Mangold’s remake of “3:10 to Yuma” was a tour-de-force), but I know I afforded it more love and patience than you have. Then again, it’s not hard to be patient with anything that seems lovingly created, even if it’s raison d’etre is unclear. I cannot disagree with your assessment of the film’s flaws, but I find it odd you would grant greater leeway to “Heaven’s Gate” (a film one hour longer and far less pleasant to watch and listen to); if you want to label as Entertainment the preponderance of meaningless incidence in “Heaven’s Gate” (the gallery of faces Kris Kristofferson punches out, the ridiculous gun battles in which Kris morphs into Steven Seagal, or the 45 minutes of explosions in the climactic battle) you’d just end up appealing to the same 23 year-olds who would compare “TAoJJbtCRF” to the great works of John Ford and Terence Malick. But that’s beside the point.

    Anyhow, I think one of the reasons that critics and select audiences liked “TAoJJbtCRF” was how seriously it took its source material, a distinguished early piece of Western revisionism. I’ve never read the novel, but I imagine much of the narration was lifted from it. It is this peculiar style of writing (found in the passive voice of the narration (with its use of rarely uttered words like “sundries” and “poultices)” as well as in the dialogue of many of the characters) that is the primary subject of the film, and the way this kind of writing influences the characters’ subjectivity – their values, their outlooks, drives and ambitions. This is why nothing much happens in the first two hours of the film – mostly we’re asked just to observe the way these characters behave, and to reflect on how their marginal status as outlaw lackeys of a very famous outlaw influences their behavior.

    The film, like its source novel, attempted to tell a western story through the prism of one of its stranger artifacts (the stage play that reenacted the shooting of Jesse James), the kind of hip and edgy concept that Ridley Scott believes are the primary reasons people watch movies and that Brad Part would devote a year of his life to. I think it’s pretty cool, myself. I think you do, too.

    The problem with the film is that the concept doesn’t really dictate the storytelling. You’re absolutely right that the more interesting story lies in all that happens after Jesse is assassinated. This would have limited Brad Pitt’s presence in the film to just a few brief scenes in the beginning (or perhaps in flashback), which incidentally would have resulted in a more effective bit of stunt casting, like putting Tom Cruise in a fat suit and skull cap in “Tropic Thunder.” However that would have required Robert Ford to carry an entire story on his narrow shoulders, and I don’t think the filmmakers had the courage to really explore a character who may well be a cipher. They had already decided there was nothing behind the façade of Robert Ford’s false courage – no reason to spend two and a half hours to reach that conclusion, so they make Jesse the star of Robert Ford’s film and devote the first two hours to showing how all the characters makes room in their lives for the famous outlaw. It’s fascinating to watch in a certain detached way, but it doesn’t amount to much of a film.

    The film is too long and ponderous, its ultimate point vague and unsatisfying, and it might have raised the ire of critics impatient with its self-indulgence and lack of incident if it were not for the precedents set by “Heaven’s Gate.” Cimino took too literally Macbeth’s observation that life was “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing;” if I fail to recall any quote that could describe Dominick’s folly, that is only because it is one less noteworthy.

    • I like your reading of the film, Bill, and largely agree with it. Another day, another time, a different venue, and TAoJJbtCRF may have made a better impression on me (and see my comment, elsewhere in this thread, that I don’t necessarily hate the film; I reserve the right to both like and dislike a movie at the same time!). Today, however, I find myself lacking the patience for long, grim, graphically violent movies about young white males—especially when the majority of shots are shallow-focus close-ups of the actors’ faces reciting lines. (It certainly didn’t help that I rewatched Batman Begins two nights before.)

      So how can I stand up for Heaven’s Gate, a long graphically violent movie about young white males? Well, it’s not at all grim, for one thing—it’s joyous. That goes a long way in my book. And it has at least one woman in it, who actually gets to play something of a role. But more than anything else, Heaven’s Gate has style. Its set pieces are all much better than anything in Assassination (and it’s a movie that lives and dies by its set pieces—it’s nothing more than a series of set pieces). The opening scene at Harvard. The roller skating scene. The climactic battle. The shoot out at the end. And that final, haunting scene set aboard the yacht. I’ll take any one of those over any scene in Jesse James, even if I have to take the rest, too.

      Ultimately, Heaven’s Gate takes risks that The Coward Robert Ford won’t dare, and I’m soft for films that take risks. (The present moment is just so dismally cautious.)

      That said, Heaven’s Gate is self-evidently a bad movie. It’s a mess. Vast portions are demonstrably inept. But isn’t that also its charm? It’s certainly fair to call it ridiculous (there’s the consequence of Cimino’s risks—and his errors), and as such it deserves a fair amount of ridicule. But it deserves to be criticized for the right reasons—the kind that you point out—and not simply for having lost a ton of money (which too many people—not you, of course—still do go on about…)

      (Forgive me for not taking the time to compose a response as eloquent as yours…)

      • Adam:

        When it comes to “Heaven’s Gate” I will admit there’s some wheat in all that chaff: the roller rink scene is boisterous. It goes on too long and David Mansfield’s tune gets repetitive (his score is perhaps the single best thing about the entire film), but it’s full of life and high spirits; the epilogue on the yacht in Newport, RI is haunting, though it’s not clear what Averill is haunted by, his failure to save the immigrant mob or his loss of Emma; the film has epic scope, but that scope is not really supported by the story – Warner Bros. and MGM shot plenty of films that traversed generations and lifetimes in a matter of weeks right on their backlots.

        I like to think that “Heaven’s Gate” could be a really great 98 minute film with the right editing and some better narration to clarify the story (there was a 145 minute cut Cimino prepared with narration by Kris Kristofferson – many thought it worse than the original).

        But here we are, talking about “Heaven’s Gate” in a space reserved for “TAoJJbtCRF.” I suppose that means something…

        • I have to disagree with you about the roller rink scene. It could itself be 98 minutes long, and I’d still watch it.

          I’ll agree with your other point, though: despite Heaven’s Gate‘s pretending to be an epic, it isn’t epic. That’s possibly—probably?—its central problem…

          Still, it’s something.

  4. Adam-
    I was excited to see your review of this movie. It was actually another review a year or so ago that pointed me towards watching it in the first place. I figured you would have some harsh criticisms and you didn’t disappoint. Considering how much I enjoyed the movie myself, your comments and insights were refreshing and informative, much like your reviews of Inception and a few other movies you’ve taken the time to analyze at the scene or shot level. Your praise of the last twenty-or-so minutes of the film (post actual assassination) are telling I think of the major shift in quality. And perhaps that is what won me over as a fan in my initial viewings, those last twenty minutes. I remember laying back on my couch and thinking how pretty everything was, but then sitting up and really paying attention at the end, finally being drawn in completely by what was happening on the screen. My feeling was that the film had gone from good to great, but maybe there’s something to be said for an awareness of relation in qualitative shifts, lest we (as a collective movie-going audience) mistake more shifts of mediocre to simply good (or bad to mediocre) for the shift I remember experiencing. Anyway, like I said, I appreciate your review for the food-for-thought that it provides. Thanks.

    I hope you’re still hard at work on that list of films from the seventies you’d recommend for us amateur film enthusiasts :-)

    • Oh, no! I hope I don’t get known for harshness!

      I think I actually kind of like the film, overall. Those last twenty minutes are pretty good. And I didn’t hate the first two hours. I mean, I found them insufferable, but on some nights I like to suffer…

      Rest assured that Jeremy and I are hard at work on a list of “endorsed” 1970s films. We’ve actually finished the list, and are now working on trying to say something for each film (which will take a little while, as there are well over 100 of them). But we’ll post it eventually…

      I was also thinking of posting a list of my favorite films from the past six years. Plus a list of my least favorite (which is just another kind of favorite).

      It’s always good to hear from you, Peter! Adam

    • That’s awesome! … I read somewhere—in some other review—that they liked this one a lot, said it was the most factually accurate.

      Of course I imagine their aesthetic criteria are (necessarily) somewhat different than mine.

  5. i understand and even agree with many of your criticisms here, but i have to give the movie props for taking a bigger risk than most (true (bb mountain doesn’t count)) westerns: it’s about a guy in love with another guy.

    also, it’s dubious to complain about wheat and cloud shots and then cite a terrence malick as someone else you’d rather watch.

    still, yeah, it was too long.

    • There are good wheat and cloud shots, and then there are…shots that are not so good.

      I did like the homosexual angle (although let’s note that the gay guy is once again the sniveling villain). Indeed, after a while, it became all my friends and I commented on. (One kept adding the line, “And I want to suck your cock!” to anything Robert Ford said.)

      (Perhaps unnecessary addendum: my friends and I are all totally in favor of same-sex cocksucking.)

  6. And I loved the film! I loved the pace, I loved the look, I loved the way gunmen can blast away at each other in a confined space and cause practically no injuries, I loved the interiors, I loved the baggy underwear, I loved the fact that everyone who is killed is shot in the back. It worked for me in a way that, say, Malick’s New World failed to work; because I didn’t believe Malick’s film for an instant, whereas I believed that the west really did look and feel and sound like this film. And I thought that the scene where Jesse James comes to the Ford family dinner was brilliant because of the way that what is said is meaningless but so much is conveyed by the faces: Sam Rockwell scared and eager to please throughout, Brad Pitt (almost convincing me he can act) just pushing his power all the time, and Casey Afleck going from hero worship to hatred without saying a word. I’ve watched it several times, it gets better with every viewing.

    • Why do folks believe that Brad Pitt can’t act? Why is that meme so persistent? Se7en, Twelve Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch., the three Ocean’s movies, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Burn After Reading, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Inglourious Basterds, The Tree of Life… Regardless of what one thinks of each one of those films, there’s a lot of variety in there, and several strong performances. If Pitt’s not acting, what precisely is he doing?

      Out of all the performances in Assassination, I liked Pitt’s best, because it struck me as the most subtle. He had the hardest role, too, I think.

      As for the film, though, Paul, one of the things I didn’t like about it is that it didn’t seem to me anything at all what life was like back then. Of course I wasn’t alive in those days, so I can’t know, but…that mise en scene was simply ridiculous! Every interior was one of two colors, sepia tone or cool blue. Every pane on every leaded window was identically warped. (Surely some of them would have been new and still pretty clear?) The floors were utterly immaculate. Women were nowhere to be seen (were they sweeping and mopping 24/7?). The men-folk lounged around speaking some author’s imagined version of late 19th-century English (“His chicanery and his philandering ways has instigated such malice.”). And it was all shot in shallow-focus close-ups alternating in shot-reverse-shot, making it look like every single other Hollywood film made over the past decade.

      I mean, the costumes were great—Patricia Norris is a real pro—and I was happy to see some dental prosthetics (though the teeth were still much too clean)…but it was still all clearly fantasy. (Which doesn’t preclude one’s liking it, of course. Realism doesn’t have any inherent claim to superiority.)

      So what we have here is a film that was made in the present moment’s most transparent, most invisible style (for period pieces). That doesn’t make it real; it just syncs up with what we currently agree looks real. But it’s as fake as Sucker Punch. Witness, though, the James family’s review: “Finally, there is a movie where we experience Jesse James as a human being, in his own character and personality.”

      Me, I prefer my historical fantasies to announce themselves more honestly.

      • This is why I think it would have been a much better film had it focused on the final twenty minutes, and the evolving stage performance of James’s assassination. (Again, just imagine if when Brad Pitt had gotten up on that chair to dust that picture, we’d cut to Sam Rockwell on the chair, on stage, getting “shot” by Casey Affleck!)

        I’m not trying to argue that every movie has to be brazenly metatextual. But this film, ultimately was about how Robert Ford’s killing of Jesse James has been depicted in media. (Look at the title (“assassination,” “coward”), the dialogue about what killing James would do to a man and his reputation, the consideration given to the stage play, the scene with Nick Cave singing the ballad in the bar.) And yet it has the…chutzpah? to present itself as “the true version” (despite its own excessive artifice, as I’ve mentioned directly above). (It even has a neutral narrator mediating the proceedings as “historical truth.” And subtitles that give the times and places! Just like in a James Bond film…)

        Seems a little nuts, if you ask me.

      • i agree. brad pitt is a very good actor, almost always convincing, almost always fun, entertaining – i also don’t know why he’s gotten the ‘bad actor’ label.

        the scene that Paul is talking about is terrific, too. just really wonderfully done. an instance, i would say, of the shot-reverse-shot being used well: instead of the characters simply pontificating or expositing or whatever, it’s all in what isn’t said, all in body language and faces and small gestures, tons of dramatic irony combined with verbal irony revised with sincerity, etc. it’s a fun scene to rewatch, probably the best one in the movie.

        • It’s cuz he’s pretty. People often think that pretty men can’t act.

          I have what I think is a somewhat novel idea as to what constitutes “good acting.” It helps account for why I consider Keanu Reeves to be a great actor. I’ve explained my reasoning to a few other people, and they’ve all backed back away slowly, eying me warily. One of these days I’ll write it down…(and then the whole internet can, what? back away?)

          I did like the dinner table scene; it had actual tension, which I wanted much more of. (Although I couldn’t help comparing it to the basement scene in Inglourious Bastards.)

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  8. Jesse James, some sort of hero ?

    Let us not forget, that Jesse, his brother Frank, and anyone that wore confederate grey, was a treasonist b@stard.

    All of the movies, that made confederates seem like something greater than the scum that they were, are unamerican at the very core.

    Especially the Outlaw Josey Wales, but this one is really close to as bad.

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    • Please enlighten us.

      Though for what it’s worth, I don’t tend to be all that interested in “points.” A point can be made in a sentence. Rather, I’m interested in a film’s total aesthetic effect—what the filmmakers do at every single second, and how it all adds up (or doesn’t).

  11. All of your points are null and void. You have missed the key concept of the film, and completely disregarded the soundtrack. To conclude; you are a massive fool, who obviously has no taste for the arts.

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  13. I loved this movie. One of the things I loved about it is that the dialogue was mostly irrelevant to the core. Sure, it moved plots, but it didn’t move the *relationships*, which were really at the core of the movie. If you only listened to it, you would have not understood any of it. You would not have understood that Bob Ford sought to know Jesse James, to see a character out of heroic pulp fiction. But Jesse James did not have a hard interior, or even a vast one. He barely existed, as least as far as Bob Ford could tell. Yet he was a force who effected the lives of all the characters, and they (Ford) didn’t really understand why he did what he did.

    Whatever they were talking about was rarely what was going on in any scene. Others cited the dinner scene, which is a great example. The film is frustratingly elusive, but I think that’s entirely the point: Jesse James was frustratingly elusive to Bob Ford. Vagueness, impressions, bland, wide lines, a you say. I think that drove much of sensibility home. The women in the background was part of that too, because Bob Ford wasn’t actually interested in them. (I’m usually sensitive about women being sidelined, but in this case I felt it appropriate.)

    It’s not until the assassination the hard lines of an easy to understand narrative come into focus — exactly the kind of hard lines Bob Ford was looking for when he joined up with the gang (and was disappointed to see didn’t exist). The same story told over and over again, until the narrative, which is outside of his control, shifts and he becomes a victim to it. Bob Ford becomes defined, and *you* sit up and take note. But sometimes being defined is problematic; it becomes as problematic for Ford to be shallowly case in the public narrative as it did for Jesse James — after all, it was that shallow narrative which drew Ford to him, which was the source of his disillusionment.

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