By Ezra Stead
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, USA / Canada, 2007
Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik
Based on the Novel by Ron Hansen
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is probably the single most beautifully shot film of 2007. Every single frame is composed with a painter’s attention to detail, and the result is one of the most classically gorgeous works of cinematic art in recent years.
However, the incredible cinematography by legendary director of photography Roger Deakins (who also shot Barton Fink, The Shawshank Redemption and No Country For Old Men, to name just a few) is just the proverbial icing; the cake is Casey Affleck, in one of the finest screen performances I’ve ever seen. His Robert Ford is nothing short of masterful, a grinning ghoul that would give anyone “the willies,” as Frank James (Sam Shepard) puts it in one early scene, but at the same time a sad and very empathetic character, because he represents the almost shameful desire for fame and glory inside all of us. Affleck’s awkward mannerisms throughout the film are a joy to behold; it is a meticulously crafted performance that continues to haunt me long after viewing the film. Ford’s every motivation in the film is to serve his naive ambition, and there is a feeling throughout of something deeply wrong with the young man; he never shows a genuine connection with anyone outside of his hero-worship of Jesse James (Brad Pitt, in one of his best performances as well).
The third point in the triangle along with Deakins and Affleck is, of course, writer-director Andrew Dominik who brought us the brilliant and underseen Chopper (2000), which introduced Eric Bana to the film world; with this film he has created not only the best Western in decades, but possibly the best film about the nature of fame, and the self-destructive desire for it, since Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). Ford has studied and followed the exploits of his beloved Jesse James since boyhood, and he is determined to gain some measure of James’ glory for himself; he and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell, in an almost equally haunting performance), who is somewhat reluctantly dragged along, decide that the best way to do this is to kill the man, whose fame and vitality are gradually waning as he reaches middle age.
This is a Western without the legendary whitewashing of those made by John Ford and Howard Hawks; it is poetic and beautiful, but consummately realistic, especially in its handling of violence, which is sloppy and brutal, with no glory or righteousness to it whatsoever. A particularly strong scene is the gunfight between Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) in a small upstairs bedroom; their guns are wildly inaccurate at close range and there is an unromantic fatalism to the whole awkward fight that is rarely seen in the movies. Dominik’s script is faithfully adapted from Ron Hansen’s excellent 1983 novel of the same name, and its perfect pacing and attention to detail also help the film to shine.
The final act, though, a coda that follows Robert and Charley in the aftermath of the assassination, when Ford’s fame quickly sours under the accusations of cowardice that surround him, is nothing short of breathtaking, a beautiful, tragic and chilling finale that perfectly summarizes the film’s themes. Andrew Dominik is a masterful artistic talent, and the two films he currently has in pre-production – a heist film called Cogan’s Trade, starring five of the best male actors alive (Pitt, Rockwell, Affleck, Javier Bardem and Mark Ruffalo), and Blonde, based on a novel by Joyce Carol Oates and starring the excellent Naomi Watts as Marilyn Monroe – should both be well worth the wait. If he continues to make films of the quality of Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he could very well become the greatest filmmaker of the next decade.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.