The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Garret Dillahunt
Directed by: Andrew Dominik
I remember hearing about this movie last year as a potential awards contender, but I guess it was held out by the studio in an attempt to retool it to make it more accessible to audiences, then released in the hopes of scoring some 2007 awards recognition. Having seen it, I think they needn’t have bothered.
Not that it isn’t a good movie. On the contrary, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an exceptional movie, one worthy of awards recognition that I’m not convinced it will get. But, it’s also a movie with little chance at becoming accessible for mainstream audiences (it’s done next to nothing for box office in the two months since its release), and has received mixed reviews from the critics. Those who might go into it hoping for a star exercise for Brad Pitt (who also serves as producer for the film) or looking for a action-based western will be severely disappointed.
I can’t really deny anyone’s claim that it’s a long, slow movie. It is, without question. It’s just that I think its deliberate pace is a strength rather than a weakness, leading to a thoughtful, poetic film that somehow both invokes and deconstructs the mythology of the western outlaw. Director Andrew Dominik puts the only shoot out action piece in the first act, then sets out to tell a stately epic that’s a quiet reflection on the mythology surrounding the death of the outlaw Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford.
In terms of plot, it’s all there in the title, so this isn’t a plot-driven vehicle either. Instead, it’s powered by Dominik’s assured direction, cinematographer Roger Deakins‘ fantastic photography, and the strong performances by both title characters, Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, each turning out work that ranks among the best in their respective careers. Pitt is understandably comfortable in a role that essentially is an examination of the affects of living with fame (or in this case, infamy), as Jesse James was a living legend in the timeframe of the movie, the subject of many books and many followers. Chief among those followers was Affleck’s Bob Ford, who breaks your heart with equal parts ambition and desperation. In doing so, he reveals that the movie isn’t so much about the exploits of America’s most famous outlaw, but rather an elegiac reckoning for the man who dared kill a known murderer, one who wasn’t above shooting others in the back.
The result is a mournful work of art that has no hope of commercial success. Given it’s status as a Brad Pitt prestige picture, it will probably be regarded as a flop, but I’ll proudly be one of the minority who recognise it as one of the best movies of his career. Even in the critical community, praise for it is mixed, and it seems destined to miss out on the praise currently (and rightly) given to the Coen Brothers‘ modern western, No Country for Old Men, even though I’m not completely sure which is the better film. That said, I fully expect history to be more kind to this film than it was to its protagonist (Ford), with its lack of popularity and acclaim only serving to bolster its support in the cinephile community.