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.