Directed by Andrew Dominik, who had previously made the nasty Australian prison movie Chopper with that incredible performance from Eric Bana, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, his second picture, was the complete antithesis of his first, an epic, lyrical, brooding, atmospheric western that distorted time and reality in a heightened fashion. Whereas Chopper was compact, tight, and extremely intimate, Dominik went in the complete opposite direction with this stylized drama, immediately showing that there was more than one layer to him as a filmmaker and artist. It might have been easier to expect a film of this power and force to come from a more established filmmaker; I just don’t think critics and audiences were prepared for what Dominik brought to the table with this grand effort. He must’ve gotten tons of big Hollywood offers after Chopper exploded on the scene in 2000, so it’s sort of telling that he waited seven years in between movies; he’s not a filmmaker to just go out and accept a “for hire” director’s assignment.
It’s obvious that he’s interested in telling stories that are personal, and I’m glad he waited for that length of time instead of rushing into something cheap and easy. And then to follow up this beyond underrated effort with 2012’s woefully neglected crime film Killing Them Softly?! The man’s work has been done no favors by skittish distributors and bean counting studio overlords. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a magisterial effort, the closest thing to a Terrence Malick movie that Terrence Malick never directed, echoing that legendary filmmaker’s glorious achievement The New World, while creating a striking ode to the lawless back country of Missouri and surrounding areas. There are stretches with no dialogue, a heavy emphasis on nature, and a poetic, meditative, lyrical tone complete with a “voice-of-god” narrator. Stark and crisp in its visual ideas, and always fascinating on an informational level, the film is languidly paced yet never boring or restless, with an overall aesthetic that begins to take the shape of an evocative dream.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is essentially a psychological study of a murder and a murderer, and it doesn’t play to the many cliché western conventions that we’ve seen over and over again. Jesse James, played by an intensely focused Brad Pitt, is winding down his gun-slinging outlaw days in Missouri. His older brother, played briefly by Sam Shephard, has had enough of him, and James’s surly crew are growing tired and rightfully scared of their emotionally repressed boss, due to James’s increasingly erratic behavior. Local politicians and lawmen want James and his gang brought to justice, so they recruit the sketchy weasel Bob Ford (Casey Affleck, in a career making performance) to ingratiate himself into James’s gang with the hopes of bringing him down. James finds Ford awkward and odd, yet for some reason allows him into his life and home; the ideas of hero and celebrity worship are beautifully explored in many sequences. Meanwhile, the members of the James gang are all getting paranoid as they begin to feel that Jesse has them all in his sights; its house cleaning time and nobody will be spared. Not wanting to risk being ratted out, James sets out to kill every one of his followers so that nobody can double cross him. I am not spoiling anything to say that it’s too little too late, and by the time that Jesse’s fate is sealed, the audience is waiting with baited breath for the titular murder to take place on screen.
Affleck is absolutely amazing as Ford. It’s a highly specific, tightly coiled, slow burn performance that’s chilling to consider in all of its stratums. Before his work here, I didn’t know what to make of him as an actor, but that all changed while watching his magnetic performance in this film, and his other excellent performance from 2007 in Gone Baby Gone. He also did great work in the little seen Gus Van Sant film Gerry, which is absurdly undervalued. He had a very, very tough character to portray in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, portraying a deeply unsympathetic man who the audience knows will end up killing Jesse James at some point in the narrative. Affleck brings a strung-out, beaten-down quality to the character of Ford, and as the movie progresses, you watch as he becomes more confident of himself, however false that sense of confidence may ultimately be, and how he starts to believe in his own madness and self-perpetuated lore. Just look at him as he spins stories and tall tales about Jesse James and his gang of outlaws; a quiet desperation seeps into the recesses of his eyes and it’s then you realize that Ford has been a lost soul for quite some time.
Pitt, owning the role of Jesse James totally and completely, brings a cocky swagger and a brutish masculinity to his performance that is awesome to behold. Prone to mumbling and not expressing his deepest thoughts, the character of James is a man of internal rage and sadness, and it’s easily one of Pitt’s most layered and interesting performances. For years, he’s been consistently underrated as an acting talent, with his overwhelming good looks having a tendency of blinding people from the fact that he’s got a reservoir of talent. And over the past few years, and sort of starting with his downtrodden work in this film, he’s been happy to subvert his pretty boy image in a series of down and dirty performances that keep pushing him further and further into character actor territory, despite the demands of the Hollywood star system. Just watch the way that Pitt slowly smokes his cigars and methodically moves his head and eyes from scene to scene in this film; it’s a wonderfully modulated performance that depends on silence just as much as it does explosive action. One scene, in which Pitt is seen sitting in a rocking chair in his back yard with a rattlesnake slithering over his forearm, is as creepy as it is profoundly majestic. There is a brazen, cavalier attitude to the performance; Pitt knows that Jesse was a psychopath and he doesn’t allow the audience the chance to warm up to him. Pitt is a movie star giving a totally un-movie star performance. In reality, Jesse James was a legend, a pseudo-celebrity before the era of tabloid magazines and paparazzi. So having an actor of Pitt’s stature playing him is a genius stroke of casting in and of itself.
The supporting cast is aces across the board, with Sam Rockwell registering best as Ford’s brother. This guy is so damn good—all the time—that it’s a crime he doesn’t get more attention. His work in Ridley Scott’s incredible conman flick Matchstick Men is still his finest performance, but he’s terrific here as well, providing sly comic relief and a sense of building anxiety that creates palpable tension within the gang of bandits. Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Garrett Dellahunt, and a slew of excellent character actors round out the solid cast. What makes The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford better than most films in the genre are the moral shades of gray that the characters exhibit. The film is basically about how one man comes to the decision to kill his idol, and in the crudest comparison, I guess maybe the movie is sort of like a stalker-thriller. Ford idolizes Jesse, wants to ride with him, wants to rob with him, and ultimately wants to be him. But the relationship that develops between the two men is awkward and volatile, giving off an un-easy feeling all throughout.
And then there’s the technical side to the film. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has been put together with great style and tremendous atmosphere by the production team and crew. It’s a tone poem of sorts about a gritty, dark period in American history. It feels extremely intimate yet very epic due in large part to the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins, who was double Oscar nominated in 2007 for his work here and on No Country for Old Men (he would lose the trophy to There Will be Blood’s Robert Elswit). Using what appeared to be natural light almost exclusively and an overall impressionistic shooting style composed of beautiful vistas, extreme close-ups, silhouettes, moonlight, train-light, and a gauzy effect similar to Robert Richardson’s brilliant cinematography in Snow Falling on Cedars, Deakins’s work here is simply astonishing. Every shot is perfect. No joke. I’m always attracted to the different ways that filmmakers can present their ideas through visuals rather than words, and with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik and Deakins have earned their place in the company of some of the most striking visual teams to craft a major motion picture.
I fell in love with this film immediately. From the dry, matter of fact voiceover narration that runs over the entire movie to the obviously enormous attention paid to each and every shot, with moments of sublime beauty at almost every turn. It’s an art film set in the old west and when the story gets violent, it has moments of shocking brutality. In fact, one of the things that I loved about this film so much was the constant sense of dread and uncertainty that runs through each scene. Right from the start, you get the feeling that any character could meet their maker at any point. And that’s one of the things about the old West that made that time period so dangerous; people got killed in a heartbeat, over simple, mundane stuff. There are no big shoot-outs down at the corral and there are no crazily choreographed horse-chase sequences in this film. But when people get shot, it’s brutal and unflinching, not sensationalized or over the top, but rather grim and raw. Like what you’d see on HBO’s Deadwood. There are so many aspects to this film that I loved: the time Dominik took to tell his story, the gripping performances, the literate dialogue, the incredible scenery, and the breathtakingly perfect ending. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the kind of movie that makes me happy to be a film buff.