Original release: September 21st, 2007
Running time: 160 minutes
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen (novel)
Composers: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Paul Schader, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Garett Dillahunt
Andrew Dominik’s second feature film was generally well liked by critics upon its release in 2007, but The Assassination Of Jesse James grossed a mere $4 million in the US on a $40 million budget. It’s now considered a “cult” film, loved by many and disliked by many more. No matter. This film has become one of my all-time favourites, and a must-watch for anyone else.
It’s elegiac and lyrical, hauntingly grim and poetically gloomy, with stunning performances from Brad Pitt, as the reputed outlaw Jesse James, and Casey Affleck, as the coward Robert Ford. It’s not a traditional Western, with no great shootouts or loud challenges issued by proud gunslingers. When gunfire does erupt it’s dirty and quick, no glory attributed to the brutal spates of violence. It’s a brilliant contemplative character study of two highly different yet eerily similar men locked in a dance of death as the film’s title morbidly promises.
Affleck was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his complex role as Robert Ford, whom we first meet as a mumbling, insecure, insignificant young follower of Jesse James and a new member of his Blue Cut gang in late 1881. But Ford is more than just a somewhat reluctant follower, unlike the other various men played by Jeremy Renner, Paul Schnader, and Sam Rockwell.
Ford’s an ignored and ridiculed groupie obsessed with the mythical figure of Jesse James – THE Jesse James, you must realize! He keeps dime novels of the outlaw’s exaggerated exploits under his bed, observing his every gesture and matter of being, and following James himself around like a faithful puppy you sometimes want to slap silly and “wake up,” so to speak. Well, eventually he does stir to consciousness, as Ford’s psyche becomes that of a dangerously conflicted and confused stalker figure, perhaps no longer the blind admirer of the celebrity figure he comes to know and fully understand, for better or for worse.
As Jesse James remarks to Ford somewhere in the middle of the film, “I can’t figure it out. Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” Jesse James is no better. He lives out the pretence of an ordinary life in an ordinary town with an ordinary wife, Zee (Mary-Louise Parker), and two ordinary children. Maybe he wishes he could be such a normal father, but Pitt’s charismatic, cunning, nasty, reckless, wickedly dangerous criminal couldn’t be farther away from being ordinary.
Burdened with the living weight of the legend that he is, as well as illness wearing him down, James is always within quick reach of his revolver, always on the lookout for traitors within his midst and naturally suspecting Ford as being such. We could call him paranoid, and he is, except as the days slowly but inevitably tick down to his murder at the hands of Ford we’re not sure who exactly is the most deranged of the two. Is it “right” what the younger man did, executing the ultimate act of betrayal by shooting a bullet into the back of someone’s head?
Jesse James’ actions and behaviour before his violent demise might suggest he invited death – but these are all clouded, semi-ambiguous mysteries that only make the film more fantastic upon reflection. The Assassination Of Jesse James scores major points for showing the aftermath of the shooting and the effect the public’s reaction has on Ford, making it a ending beyond what the title promised.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is stupendous and spectacular, certainly contributing to the film’s unique appeal (along with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ stirring score). Every shot is carefully framed and composited, like an exquisite painting come to life, and yet, it still feels natural, as if Deakins merely turned his camera on the rugged landscape and found the stark, startling beauty in them, and also in the simplistic, ugly men who inhabit it.
The Assassination Of Jesse James‘ visuals have been criticized before for being overly stylish considering the material, and indeed Deakins doesn’t hold back – there are plenty of cutaways to time-lapse footage of dramatic, stormy skies, and yellowed grass blades wavering under the wind. Not to mention the so-called “Deakinizers” – a curiously effective, semi-dreamy quasi-pinhole “retro” effect put to use multiple times. But I didn’t mind anything about the cinematography at all.
Perhaps no better example of the quality of the visual work comes during a night raid by the Blue Cut gang on a passing train in the middle of a forest; Deakins masterfully deals with smoke, darkness, and light to create a marvellous atmosphere of breathtaking beauty, as well as a foreboding feeling of danger. It’s only fitting that scene should belong in The Assassination Of Jesse James.
Max Lalanne is an award-winning student filmmaker - whose debut short won a prestigious award at the Houston Intl. Film Festival when he was just 13. The bi-lingual film blogger and critic also has his own movie website, SmellofPopcorn.com.
He loves almost all kinds of cinema and watches a diverse array of movies on a regular basis, some of his favourites include Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, Lord of the Rings, Aliens, and Finding Nemo. You can follow Max on Twitter @maxlalanne.