The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik

Cast: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell

Runtime: 160 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the director of this film, Andrew Dominik, is a fellow New Zealander. Hailing from Wellington, his first film was 2000’s Chopper (which I’m about to watch as soon as I finish this review) and he waited seven years before completing this, arguably his magnum opus, a film that is easily among the best of the last decade and rivals Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood for its rich recreation of an era more than a century ago, and the questionable motives and ethics of business and profit in that era.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most well-shot, written, acted, scored and directed films of the modern cinematic era. In general, it is a perfectly crafted film that dances close to a level of perfection only a small group of films have ever attained, and in each moment, utilises each of its strengths collectively to enhance its atmospheric power to a level of pure cinematic bliss. The cinematography by Roger Deakins, one of the greatest film photographers of all time, renders every image a swirling, captivating portrait. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis perfectly straddles the line between hauntingly slow and moving and powerfully energetic. These two perhaps small but vital details boost the film’s power phenomenally, and they’re not even the biggest highlights.

Casey Affleck plays Ford and Brad Pitt plays James, though by the time we reach the film’s big eponymous event, Ford is not a coward and James’ death is not so much an ‘assassination’ as an event that seems to be accepted by everyone involved, a dead certainty that no-one dared question. We can almost feel James and Ford giving a great big sigh in unison as the event occurred. They knew it would come to this. We knew too. It was no great spoiler – Dominik included it in the title of his film for a reason. It is not the event itself that is the focal point, but the events leading up to it, and surprisingly the events following it as well. The death seems only to be a detail, yet a magnificently well-crafted one at that. Dominik manages to make the moment feel incredibly powerful and even majestic. It is a cinematic death one won’t forget.

The film has the feel and magnificent scope of an epic. Its length allows not only the story to unfold properly but the atmosphere of the setting to really wash over the audience. It does so wonderfully, in each perfectly framed shot by Deakins directed coolly and carefully by Dominik. There is not a single moment in the film that feels wrong. The film is like a painting, each brushstroke carefully manufactured, the paint oozing across the canvas in a beautiful dance of thick colour. As the film gradually progresses, its pace a vital part of its effect, the kinetic energy of each shot becomes a building tension as Robert Ford, who idolized Jesse James perhaps out of proportion, begins to slowly resent him. Their dance of death is a strange one, infused with plenty of emotional, physical and even slightly sexual tension. One’s disappointment with their heroes is something many of us often have to face, and Ford’s childlike idolization of James makes it seem as if he is setting himself up for disappointment and failure – and he feels like he knows it.

The Assassination of Jesse James… is one of the most remarkable westerns I’ve ever seen. It seems that in this modern era the western genre is expanding into something wider, something deeper. The classic westerns of the 50s and 60s, while being brilliant films in their own right, seem curiously different. The images seem sharper, more dangerous, where as the soft and composed texture of the images in today’s westerns alter the effect tremendously. This film, however, is a success. It is a soft western, valuing character development, careful pace and provocative images over sensational and explicit violence. All film genres are almost constantly evolving (some even devolving) but none seem to be changing quite like this one. The Assassination of Jesse James is probably the best western of recent years, and a truly transcendant film that mesmerises and stuns. From its opening frames to its final fleeting moments, it feels like a classic, in every sense of the world.

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Posted on August 15, 2012, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. I loved this film. Great review! I think one of the things I really enjoyed about it was that it wasn’t constrained by the usual western genre tropes. It was free to roam and define itself.

  2. Maybe one of the most underrated films of the last ten years. Haunting, chilling, breathtaking, beautiful. Great cinematography (Roger Deakins) and performances (Brad Pitt is a very underrated actor, IMO). Wonderful soundtrack from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Deconstructing the person by exploring the fascination with fame and celebrity by propagating a legend.

    Can’t wait to see KILLING THEM SOFTLY.

  3. I have had this on DVD for about three years and have been putting off watching it, but will definitely get round to it now!

  4. Hi, Tyler and company:

    Excellent critique and review!

    ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ is a great little film. Reminds me a bit of Peckinpah’s ‘Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid’ in its relaxed, measured pace
    amongst wonderful, softly muted scenery.

    Also enjoyable for its focus on the Ford brothers and the evolution of events that you know are going to happen, but really don’t want to.

  5. I remember loving this. Granted i saw it when i was younger, but considering how many movies i saw in my earlier years that i don’t remember, the fact that this one has managed to stick out in my mind says a lot

  6. Nice review here. It definitely feels like a classic western from first frame to last. It’s a real shame that no one saw this when it came out. I was pleasantly surprised by Affleck’s nomination, but Pitt just nailed his role. Flawless performance.

    This movie definitely needs to be seen by more people. Here’s to hoping your awesome review will push them toward it.

  7. Great review, I am glad you have given it the credit it deserves. I reviewed this sometime ago. I cannot wait for Dominik and Pitt’s next collaboration; killing them softly. If you would like to check out my review please do, if you cannot excuse it as a shameless plug then that’s okay too (not intended), we appear to be one the same page with this remarkable film and its refreshing to find a like mind. Thanks again for reviewing it, a movement has started to get this film its overdue glory!

    http://claratsi.wordpress.com/2012/04/07/all-time-top-ten-review-the-assassination-of-jesse-james-by-the-coward-robert-ford/

  8. Excellent review as always Tyler. I’ve seen this already but I picked it up again very cheap for a rewatch. I remember very little about it and having spoke to Claratsi already and reading this it sounds like a rewatch is a good idea. Cheers man.

  9. Great review. I love the atmosphere and the performances (Pitt especially), but I’m not as high on the film as most who’ve seen it. Still, a third viewing might just be in order.

  10. I definitely love this film. Wish I saw it on the big screen. It reminded me a lot of Terrence Malick’s films in terms of its imagery. I also love the cast and the music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

  11. Fantastic review! Glad you liked this one, it’s one of the few films I gave 10/10 to. THe score is magical, the cinematography is beautiful and the film itself is so gripping. Apparantly there is 4h director’s cut, that was show at one of film festivals, I really hope it will be released one day.

  12. Excellent review, I need to get round to watching this ASAP. It is certainly going on my watchlist now.

  13. I watched this at around14 and couldn’t finish it because I found it a bore. I am not detracting the film but rather myself seeing as at that time I thought Will Ferrell was the funniest man ever. How times have changed. Great review that inspires me to search out new films.

  14. Hey, Tyler–

    Long time no see. I agree with you that this movie is exceptional in every way, though (naturally) I bristle somewhat at the comparison with There Will Be Blood–a movie which, I assure you, will be spoken of with the same reverence and in the same league as Apocalypse, Now and Taxi Driver by the end of the decade. (I was sorely disappointed that it didn’t make Sound & Sight’s list this year–it was certainly among the most worthy candidates of the last decade or two.) As for other outstanding westerns of recent years, I also heartily recommend 3:10 to Yuma, and going back a little further, Jim Jarmusch’s regrettably overlooked Dead Man.

    Speaking (again) of PTA, I am practically wetting myself waiting for September 15–The release date for The Master has been moved up in the U.S. Advance buzz has been nothing short of stellar.

    • I agree that There Will Be Blood is an all-time classic in the making, but I think this film succeeds in similar ways. I think there’s certainly a connection anyway. I haven’t seen 3:10 to Yuma but I love Dead Man (and pretty much any other Jarmusch film).

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