The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

April 1, 2008



2007 was a particularly good year for films, with every genre well represented and no end of talent, new and old, emerging or re-emerging to produce some of the best films of this generation. No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood were noted by many as out-and-out classics; I would add a third to that list: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. New Zealand-born writer-director Andrew Dominik takes a fresh, outsider’s view of the western genre, and has created an astonishing, revisionist film that is flawless on every level. 

Brad Pitt gives the best performance of his career (apart perhaps from his incendiary turn in Fight Club) as notorious outlaw Jesse James, who along with his gang committed numerous robberies across the Mid-West in the latter part of the 19th Century until, with the authorities getting closer and most of his gang disbanded, he was murdered by his gang’s youngest member and obsessive fan Robert Ford. Casey Affleck plays Ford, and gives a performance nothing short of astounding. Both leads excel, capturing their respective characters’ subtleties and idiosyncrasies. James is enigmatic, calculating, with a psychotic gaze and obvious presence. Ford is uncomfortable, often wearing a sleepy-lidded grin that hints at his growing ambition to be as famous, feared and respected as his idol. Jesse James is a true anti-hero – deranged and unpredictable. Ford’s fright, but at the same time jealousy, is clear for all to see. It becomes an intriguing psychological battle between the two as it comes nearer to the inevitable denouement: a beautifully realised scene of betrayal. And it doesn’t end there. We see Robert and his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) attempting to live with what has happened. “You know what I was expecting? Applause,” he tells companion Dorothy (Zooey Deschanel) years later. The reaction to James’ murder is of outrage and sadness. A murderer and criminal he may have been, but Jesse James was a folk hero to many in America, and thus Ford is ostracised from the society he thought would welcome his action.

Affleck gives the best performance of the year, somehow robbed of awards, and Pitt matches him. All the supporting cast are equally superb. Rockwell displays again that he is one of the best character actors around. Mary-Louise Parker, playing Jesse’s wife Zee, is very effective even in a small role. But everyone is so good; it’s hard to pick a standout.

Then there’s the technical side. Dominik builds on his electrifying cult classic debut Chopper, building a strong, sweeping story with remarkable assurance. Everything is done with care and attention to detail. The visuals in particular are outstanding, benchmark-setting even. Director of Photography Roger Deakins (Jarhead and regular Coen Brothers collaborator) lights every frame perfectly. And Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ brilliant score adds immeasurably to the long, majestic scenes and transitions. Dominik also uses an audacious, poetic third-person narration that encapsulates the increasing emotional torment of the situation.

Few films are so methodical in their approach and this one manages to achieve that rare feat: capturing its audience and not letting go until the well after the end credits. And even at its 160mins running time, it never comes close to being too long. I would dearly love to see the four-hour version that premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Pitt deservedly won Best Actor. And how the film wasn’t recognised in the Best Picture, Director, Writing, Editing and Music categories, as well as Pitt for Best Actor, at the Oscars, BAFTAs or Golden Globes remains a mystery.

Dominik has captured the story of America’s most infamous outlaw and his killer, and the stunning backdrop of the Mid-West, in all of its dark grandeur. Marvellous dialogue and remarkable, intricate storytelling coupled with magnificent, occasionally expressionistic visuals make this a truly brilliant achievement. An extraordinary film.


5/5 award noms missed


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