originally published in the middlebury campus
Spring time brings a mixed bag to movie theaters. There is rarely the over the top bombast that one finds during the summer, the introspective independent films that usual see the light of day toward the end of the fall, or even the laughably terrible films that are released in January or February. The spring usually finds films popping up in cineplexes that are too unimpressive to see release at any other time, which usually means nothing worth spending time on is gracing our local theaters. This is actually a blessing in disguise because it can afford one the opportunity to go back and check out films that might have slipped by during their theatrical run and are now being released on DVD. One of the films that slipped past most people when it had its initial shot in theaters this past September was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
The plot of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is pretty much given away in the title. The film revolves around the relationship between infamous outlaw (and star of his own series of dime novels) Jesse James and 19-year old member of Jesse James’ gang Robert Ford. The two men meet during James’ last train robbery, and the young Ford quickly becomes attached to the charismatic Jesse James, who takes Ford under his wing during and after that robbery. Ford’s attachment becomes borderline obsessed until there is an imagined slight by James, at which point Ford goes to the U.S. Marshall, where his adolescent recklessness gets the better of him and he agrees to be James’ executioner. The rest of the film plays out about how you’d expect; Jesse James is assassinated by Robert Ford.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was initially completed in September of 2005, but after a first cut that didn’t please Warner Brothers studio heads or test audiences, the film languished in post-production hell as director Andrew Dominik cut and tested several versions of the film, before finally settling on the version that was released in September, 2007, two years after principle photography wrapped. It’s impossible to know the original cut of the film looked like, but the film that Dominik completed is staggering.
Brad Pitt won a Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance as Jesse James, and he deserved it. Pitt’s James transforms over the course of the film from confident outlaw to a paranoid and psychotic insomniac, afraid of being betrayed by everyone, except for Robert Ford. It is a towering performance that could easily stand alongside any of the best performances last year and is Pitt’s finest work to date. As Robert Ford, Casey Affleck proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is one of the best actors working today. Affleck takes what could have been a whiny-19 year old interloper and turns the character into a much more tragic figure, a young man who has the idyllic image of his hero shattered and who is forced to murder the man whom he respects more than any other. The film transcends its traditional western genre and instead becomes not only a meditation on fame and the glorification of celebrity, but also about the tragic loss of youthful innocence.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is beautiful in the same way that Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is beautiful. The pace of the film is slow and contemplative, as the voice of a narrator provides back story while we watch a lone figure ride out of the mountains and onto the plains (the picture was filmed in Hollywood’s latest stand-in for the old west, the Canadian Rockies). Where most westerns are about getting to the action, Dominik holds back, preferring to make the audience wait for what we all know is inevitable. This could sound pretentious and boring, but Dominik is so assured in his images and characters that each lingering shot is breathtaking. Dominik doesn’t end his film with the assassination of Jesse James; he provides a lengthy epilogue which forces the audience to consider the link between fact and fantasy, and the glorification of outlaws in the American psyche. These themes aren’t new, but here Dominik’s penchant for contemplation makes them a part of the film; they don’t exist separate from the film because they are the film.
In the end, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for everyone for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. Everything about the film, from running time to title, is long. This isn’t a film concerned with bang-bang action, and one should be aware of this going in. But if you have the time, and right mindset, this is a truly awe-inspiring film that was the unfair target of critical and studio scorn, and audience indifference at the time of its release. It’s really a shame, because The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a masterpiece.