Day 119: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

"You were precious to behold, Bob. You were white as spit in a cotton field."

When I sat down two years ago and made my list of the twenty-five best films of the decade for 2000-2009, I ranked 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford at number ten. After watching the film again, I think I would likely rank it eight, meaning that it would leap frog the films The Squid and the Whale and The Prestige both of which I adore, but neither of which pack the wallop that this film packs. The Squid and the Whale is a very personal film for me, as I feel it's the most honest and realistic depiction of divorce ever put on film, and The Prestige is a masterpiece of a puzzle that gets better every time I watch it. But The Assassination of Jesse James is the kind of film that just isn't made anymore, and certainly not this well. My love for the films of the 1970s is no secret, and this film embodies the spirit of the 70s so completely, and is firmly in line with the revisionist westerns of the decade like McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Little Big Man and The Outlaw Josey Wales.

It seems odd to start a review by talking about the cinematography, but of all the incredible and fantastic elements that came together to make this film the masterpiece that it is, Roger Deakins' cinematography is the best of the entire decade. The film utilizes two distinct looks that make it unique. There's the "present" which is shot very classically, and then there are these smaller vignettes that occur throughout the film that feature narration and blurred edges of the frame, apparently achieved by mounting wide angle lenses to the front of Arri Macro lenses. It's an incredible achievement, and Hugh Ross' narration in these scenes is eerie and adds an otherworldliness to the proceedings. The train robbery sequence alone should have won him an Oscar (Robert Elswit won that year for cinematography for There Will Be Blood, deservedly so, but also because Deakins was a dual nominee for this and No Country for Old Men).

The film opens with the last big heist by the famed James gang, led by Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Most of the original gang has gone their own way, and the brothers have been forced to take on some less than stellar members in the gang, among them Jesse's hot-headed cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Dick Liddl (Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) and the Ford Brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck). It's less than ideal, but the job gets done, and Frank heads for parts unknown, while Jesse decides to try his hand at a normal life in Kentucky.

During his absence, things begin to fall apart for many of his gang members. Hite & Liddl can barely conceal their contempt for one another, particularly after Liddl sleeps with Hite's step-mother. The Ford Brothers, meanwhile, can't help but live in hope that Jesse will pick them to do another job with, and when Jesse re-surfaces after an absence, he informs the brothers that they will comprise his new gang for a bank heist he has planned. Paranoia grows among the brothers, especially when old James gang members start turning up dead, and they begin to believe that Jesse is trying to get rid of anyone who may be able to connect him with his old life as an outlaw.

Everything comes to a head when Charley convinces Bob that it's either going to be them or Jesse, and Bob, ever the loyal Jesse subject, but also a fame whore, decides that he wants fame on his own terms, so he guns down Jesse with the gun Jesse gave him for his twentieth birthday. Bob gets the fame he so richly desired, but as the legend of the now deceased Jesse grows, so too does Bob's infamy, and before long, he becomes a pariah.

First and foremost, director Andrew Dominik has a clear vision & a wonderful directorial eye. It's even more amazing when you consider that this is only his second feature after 2000's Chopper, which features a powerhouse performance by Eric Bana. He is not afraid to take his time with the story and lets things unfold in an elegiac way that befits the film's subject matter. It's rare these days that a director takes time to tell a story without giving in to self indulgence (I'm looking at you, Peter Jackson). This is also the rare film that was still good in spite of its release date being moved several times. Typically when a film's release date is shifted back, it's not good news, but in this case, it turned out to work in the film's favor, as a legend grew up around the film before it was ever released.

Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances here. He has always been an actor that relishes the power of silence, and he is given a chance to really use that technique to its full advantage here. He's never more powerful than when he seems to not be doing anything. He's also never more dangerous than when he seems to be in good spirits, and it's a dichotomy that Pitt plays to its fullest. While I don't think it's his best performance, it certainly helped prove a lot of people wrong about his abilities as an actor.
Casey Affleck is revelatory as well. I have never been a fan of his, as evidenced by my review of I'm Still Here, but this is one of those situations where an actor's limitations play perfectly into a very specific role. Here he is able to play unnervingly naive and dangerously stupid in such a way that I can't picture anyone else in the role. He is fantastic and I certainly hope that he proves me wrong in the future about his abilities.

The rest of the supporting cast is superb as well. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors working today, and he's great as always. Jeremy Renner was still relatively unknown when he did this film, but he would rocket to stardom two years later with The Hurt Locker, and his formidable talent as an actor is on display here as well. To say that Paul Schneider is underused as an actor would be an understatement, but he is fantastic as well. Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, even Mary-Louise Parker as Zee, Jesse's wife, are all wonderful too, and really fill out the film in the best possible way.

Overall, I think that while this is certainly not a film for everyone, if you can get your hands on the blu-ray, which looks amazing, and just shut everything else out for the better part of three hours and just let yourself get lost in the world of this film, you'll be amazed by its power. Then again, maybe you won't be, maybe you'll just be bored by it. But that's not my fault. That's your own.

[Header Image]