Directed by Andrew Dominik, who previously made the nasty little movie CHOPPER with that incredible performance from Eric Bana, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a lyrical, brooding, atmospheric Western that gave me the goose bumps numerous times throughout its two and a half hour run time. With this film, Dominik has skyrocketed to the top of the list of young directors to watch. I might have expected a film of such power and force from an established filmmaker; I just had no idea that Dominik was capable of such a film. He must've gotten tons of big Hollywood offers after CHOPPER was released but I’m glad he waited. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a masterwork, the closest thing to a Terrence Malick movie that Terrence Malick never directed. I was reminded many times of Malick's most recent masterful achievement, THE NEW WORLD, while watching JESSE JAMES. There are stretches with no dialogue, a heavy emphasis on nature, and a poetic, meditative, lyrical tone. Stark and crisp in its visual ideas and always interesting on some informational level, the film is languidly paced yet never boring or restless.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is essentially a psychological study of a murder and a murderer, and it doesn’t play to the many cliché Western conventions that we’ve seen over and over again. Jesse James, played by an intensely focused Brad Pitt, is winding down his gun-slinging outlaw days in Missouri. His older brother, Sam Shephard, has had enough of him and James’s crew is growing tired, and rightfully scared, of James’s increasingly erratic behavior. Local politicians and lawmen want James and his gang brought to justice, so they recruit the weasel Bob Ford (Casey Affleck, in a career making performance) to ingratiate himself into James’s gang with the hopes of bringing him down. James finds Ford awkward and odd, yet for some reason allows him into his life and home. Meanwhile, the members of the James gang are all getting paranoid as they begin to feel that Jesse has them all in his sights; it’s house cleaning time. Not wanting to risk being ratted out, James sets out to kill every one of his followers so that nobody can double cross him. I am not spoiling anything to say that it’s too little too late, and by the time that Jesse’s fate is sealed, the audience is waiting with baited breath for the titular murder to take place on screen.
Affleck is absolutely amazing as Ford. It’s a highly specific and tightly coiled performance that is the definition of the phrase “slow burn.” I hadn’t thought much of him as an actor but that all changed while watching his magnetic performance in this film. He has a very, very tough character to portray, playing a deeply unsympathetic man who the audience knows will end up killing Jesse James at some point in the narrative. Affleck brings a strung-out, beaten-down quality to the character of Ford, and as the movie progresses, you watch as he becomes more confident of himself, and how he starts to believe in his own madness. It’s an Oscar-worthy effort that will probably get overlooked due to the miniscule box office returns that the film is accumulated.
Pitt, owning the role of Jesse James, brings a cocky swagger and a brutish masculinity to the tale that is awesome to behold. It’s one of the best performances of his underrated career. Just watch the way the Pitt slowly smokes his cigars and methodically moves his head and eyes. One scene, in which Pitt is seen sitting in a rocking chair in his back yard with a couple of rattlesnakes slithering over his forearm, is as creepy as it is profoundly majestic. There is a brazen, cavalier attitude to the performance; Pitt knows that Jesse was a psychopath and he doesn’t allow the audience the chance to warm up to him. Pitt is a movie star giving a totally un-movie star performance. In reality, Jesse James was a legend, a pseudo-celebrity before the era of tabloid magazines and paparazzi. So having an actor of Pitt’s stature playing him is a genius stroke of casting in and of itself.
The supporting cast is aces across the board, with Sam Rockwell registering best as Ford's brother. This guy is so damn good—all the time—that it's a crime he doesn't get more attention. His work in Ridley Scott’s vastly underrated MATCHSTICK MEN is still his finest performance but he’s terrific in JESSE JAMES as well. Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Brad Dellahunt, and slew of excellent character actors round out the solid cast. What makes JESSE JAMES better than most movies are the moral shades of gray that the characters exhibit. The film is basically about how one man comes to the decision to kill his idol, and in the crudest comparison, I guess maybe the movie is sort of like a stalker-thriller. Ford idolizes Jesse, wants to ride with him, wants to rob with him, and ultimately wants to be him. But the relationship that develops between the two men is awkward and volatile, giving off an un-easy feeling all throughout the movie.
In the end, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is more about style and atmosphere than anything else. It's a tone poem of sorts about a gritty, dark period in American history. It feels extremely intimate yet very epic due in large part to the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins (FARGO, JARHEAD, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?) Using what appeared to be natural light almost exclusively and an impressionistic shooting style composed of beautiful vistas, extreme close-ups, silhouettes, moonlight, train-light, and a gauzy effect similar to Robert Richardson’s brilliant cinematography in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, Deakins’s work here is simply astonishing. Every shot is perfect. No joke. I am a huge admirer of films that lean on the visual aspects of storytelling to present their information; this being a Ridley and Tony Scott production, no expense has been spared to make JESSE JAMES look totally authentic, without ever feeling garish or over-blown. Of late, some of my favorite films have been THE NEW WORLD, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, MUNICH, THE DEPARTED, MIAMI VICE, APOCALYPTO, CITY OF GOD, and MAN ON FIRE. I’m attracted to the different ways that filmmakers can present their ideas through visuals, rather than words, and with JESSE JAMES, Dominik and Deakins have earned their place in the company of some of the most striking visual storytellers.
I fell in love with this film immediately. From the god-like voiceover narration that runs over the entire movie to the attention paid to each and every shot, there are moments of sublime beauty at almost every turn in this film. It's an art film set in the old West and when the story gets violent, it has moments of shocking brutality. In fact, one of the things that I loved about this film so much was the constant feeling of dread and uncertainty that runs through each scene. Right from the start, you get the feeling that any character could meet their maker at any point. And that's one of the things about the old West that made that time period so dangerous; people got killed in a heartbeat, over simple, mundane stuff. There are no big shoot-outs down at the corral and there are no crazily choreographed horse-chase sequences. But when people get shot in this film, it's brutal and unflinching. Not sensationalized or over the top, but rather grim and raw. Like what you'd see on DEADWOOD. There are so many aspects to this film that I loved; the time Dominik took to tell his story, the gripping performances, the literate dialogue, the incredible scenery, and the breathtakingly perfect ending. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is the kind of movie that makes me happy to be a film buff, and the sort of film that makes me love going to the cinema. I can't wait to re-watch it over and over again. It's the finest film of 2007.