One can only wonder in awe how a film that gives away the entire plot in the title can be as special as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is. In only his second film, writer/director Andrew Dominik has crafted a beautiful portrayal of the two characters named in the title. As a western, this stands as an instant classic and a breath of fresh air the genre so desperately needs. This is not your usual 3:10 to Yuma shoot em’ up western, but rather a gorgeous study of two of the most complicated characters you’ll find in any story. As a biopic, Dominik has given us a different, original and satisfying insight on the man that was Jesse James as well as his killer Robert Ford.
In performances that can be described as no less than outstanding, Jesse James is played by Brad Pitt and his assassin Bob Ford is played by Casey Affleck, who along with his performance in Gone Baby Gone, now stands as a front runner for my Man of the Year award. It used to be that Robert Ford was perceived as nothing but a coward but Dominik’s version of Jesse James gives us reasons to side with him. There’s a scene toward the end with Affleck discussing the assassination with his girlfriend and he explains that he expected to be applauded for bringing the most notorious criminal in the nation to justice. The main reason he did it was actually because he feared that Jesse was going to kill him. Affleck’s performance creates that feeling of sympathy and pity from the audience that I’m sure Dominik was aiming for. This is one small example of brilliant execution of a lengthy 160 minute epic.
Ever since he was a boy, Robert Ford has looked up to Jesse James and the James Gang. He had a collection of stories by R.W. Stevens about the James Gang and anything else that has to do with them. When the film opens, Bob is 19-years old, while Jesse is 34. All that’s left of the original James Gang is Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard, 2001’s Black Hawk Down) who soon hangs it all up after the opening and spectacular train robbing sequence. Jesse, now operating on his own, recruits some local Missouri criminals to help him and that includes Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell, 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Bob’s older brother. This opens the door for Bob to meet Jesse.
Both actors portray their characters brilliantly and enigmatically. Bob Ford in the movie is a bit of an oddball character, which he may not have been in real life but it sure makes for a better film. Affleck peels the layers off of his character beautifully, one at a time as he goes from loving admirer to betrayer. Dominik gives a close up of his face as he is sitting in a rocking chair just before the assassination and his expression resembles an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle.
As for Brad Pitt, I dread to think it’s not safe to say that he has locked up an Oscar nomination for his effort. What do we learn about Jesse? He was a cold-blooded killer and the postmortem fame he received really belongs to Robert Ford. This is one of the rare cases in history in which the assassin turns out to be the tragic figure rather than the victim. But Pitt’s performance is so powerful, we as an audience get the feeling that there is humanity in him. He was a loving father and a husband. Even in a brutal scene in which he beats up a little boy in trying to find out where that boy’s cousin (Jim Cummings, who betrayed Jesse and caused some of his gang members to be arrested) is, we feel for him as he breaks down into tears. Then in a scene where he gives Bob a present (the gun that would take his life) he stares out a window and we wonder if he did indeed have regrets.
The supporting performances shouldn’t go without mentioning. Sam Rockwell particularly stands out as Charlie, who is easily as tragic and complicated of a character as Bob is. Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later) plays Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite, who has his own interesting storyline as he gets into a feud with longtime friend Dick Liddle (Paul Schneider, 2005’s The Family Stone). Granted this appears to deviate a little from the main storyline implied by the title, but it’s so well done by Dominik as he works this storyline into a plot point that sets every future event in the rest of the film in motion.
The screenplay by Dominik is masterfully structured and written and his vision transpires from script to screen perfectly. Some critics have complained that the middle of the film stalls and drags but I think everything either helps to add complexity and layers to the storyline or the characters or even both. The dialogue is so superb from scene to scene that there’s no reason to think what these critics are writing so negatively about. As a director, Dominik seamlessly tells his version of Jesse James with style and insight.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins, who shot two other major 2007 releases (In the Valley of Elah and No Country For Old Men) is absolutely stunning. From the wide shots of mountain ranges and prairie fields to close ups of actors, Jesse James is worth the effort for the sake of looking at it alone. Add that to the beautiful costume and production design by Patricia Norris, and Jesse James is one of the most gorgeous looking motion pictures of this or any other year.
All in all, this is the best epic western since the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves. If there is any justice, this film will carry that same title with it through the years. Dominik has left quite an impression with his second film and I can’t wait to see what he does next. His film has officially clinched a spot on my End-of-the-year Top 10 List and when 2007 is all said and done, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will stand in my mind as one of the year’s truly great films.
The Upside: The best film so far of the fall.
The Downside: 160 minutes long, but it didn’t bother me.
On the Side: Jesse James was missing the top of his middle finger and had a syndrome that caused him to blink much more than the normal person.
Release Date: September 21, 2007 (limited)
Rated: R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.
Running Time: 160 minutes
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell
Director: Andrew Dominik
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Official Website: JesseJamesMovie.WarnerBros.com