2007 was the year that the western genre saw a sort of a re-birth. This first came with the critical and commercial hit remake “3:10 to Yuma.” Soon after that very impressive film, a very different western, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” made its way into theaters. While its run wasn’t as long and it didn’t see the audience or the money that “Yuma” did, the film is certainly gaining a lot of attention after its major Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor, Casey Affleck) and it really deserves that.
The film, directed by Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”), is an interesting look at the very famous story that its title describes. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) is a man who has spent most of his life dreaming about his hero, the great outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). This fascination has become a sort of joke to his friends and family and when Ford finally gets to meet his idol, it becomes an obsession.
Jesse James is a character who is not predictable. He instills fear in his friends, foes, and family and it becomes obvious why he is so fascinating. He’s a larger-than-life character, something that audiences often love to hate and hate to love. Pitt plays this perfectly. He gives James a subtle terror, because it doesn’t have to be too obvious.
Once Ford becomes James’ confidant and semi-sidekick, we see him live through the fear of being in his company. Ford is hired by the law to arrest James, a job not fit for his character, and this works perfectly. James begins to hold Ford’s psychological balance in his hands by using his own psychotic character. There is one particular scene that truly shows this power: Ford and James are sleeping in twin beds, Ford is awake and holding his gun. He gets up, sees James look over and tells him he needs to use the privy and James tells him “You think you do, but you don’t.” It’s a very small scene but it exhibits the powerful dread that James had over everyone.
The film’s title gives away the ending, but it’s a useful tool for those who are unfamiliar with the story. We know that the assassination is going to happen and therefore we are able to pay more attention to the backstory and the build-up to the climax. The film is very well-crafted, even though it does not really follow the typical western traditions.
Another factor that sets this film apart from others is its use of little known actors for the majority of the roles. Besides Brad Pitt, and for a lesser extent Casey Affleck, the cast is relatively fame-free. Paul Schneider, who was terrific in last year’s “Lars and the Real Girl,” shows a great amount of range as Dick Liddil, one of Jesse James’ devious sidekicks. Also worthy of mention is Sam Rockwell’s performance as Robert’s brother Charley Ford. Rockwell has the unfortunate talent to play the same character in most of his films but he gives us a different side and he truly transforms in this film.
As for Casey Affleck, the Academy definitely made an excellent choice in honoring his performance with a nomination. He brings an understated amount of power to the role – and he truly embodies Bob Ford. He is especially terrific at the end of the film. After the assassination takes place, Robert Ford becomes a celebrity, and milks his fame for all it’s worth. He begins to be despised by the American public for his cowardice and his exploitations and this is when Affleck is most impressive. He sees the fame that James once had and it truly scares him. It’s a wonderful achievement by a talented actor.
“The Assassination of Jesse James…” is essentially an art film, and that’s why it shies away from the western genre. The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who garnered Oscar nods for both this and the Coens’ “No Country For Old Men.” There are many particular shots that are awe-inspiring, and seem to live as their own characters within the film. The film’s length is a bit daunting and it could have been cut differently to be a lot shorter (by the way, why do director’s cuts always have to make the film longer?). There are many subplot stories that build up the terror that is Jesse James, and a lot of them didn’t really feel necessary. The relationship between James and Ford is definitely the best device used to build up this tension and it is also the most memorable.
While “The Assassination of Jesse James…” has the unfortunately off-putting and unnecessary long running-time, it shouldn’t be dismissed. It features many remarkable and cerebral performances from an interesting array of actors, and is gorgeously shot. This is another film that proves the Brad Pitt is an actor, and after this and 2006’s flawed yet strong “Babel”, he should keep turning out performances that show his range. As for Casey Affleck, who also gave a great performance in his brother Ben’s directorial debut “Gone Baby Gone”, this is an underrated actor is finally getting his due.