The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Director Andrew Dominik Stars Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell USA/Canada/UK 2007 Language English 2 hr 40 mins Colour
Big, would-be classic Western
That Brad Pitt is a movie star, a proper movie star, is a given. He’s instantly identifiable, effortlessly famous, and a decent box-office draw, especially beyond the borders of the United States. And yet… There is something unusual about the nature of his stardom. For a start, after all this time, ask a large chunk of the audience about his defining moment and they will go for his two scenes in Thelma And Louise, right at the start of his career (or for some of us, not long after, it’s his bit part as the stoner roommate in True Romance). And in contrast to Tom Cruise, say, Pitt rarely does films where the rest of the cast are mostly there to make him look good. On the contrary, the period of Brad Pitt vehicles – Meet Joe Black, Seven Years In Tibet – was one of failure. Pitt has thrived in pairings (Se7en, Fight Club) and ensembles (the Ocean’s series, Inglorious Basterds). The current World War Z is a rare attempt at the Cruise thing, a late bid for a solo mega hit.
The Assassination Of Jesse James, one of the many films he has produced, is more typical of the mature Pitt. He plays one of the most famous Americans ever (a level of renown often discussed in the film) yet he is not the protagonist of the story.
That’s wheedly, weird, deluded, needy superfan Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), clearly written as a precursor to Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley Jr, or, in fictional terms, The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin.
The celebrity status of outlaws in 19th century is one of the main themes of this story, as the ageing (at 34) Jesse struggles not just with pressure from the law, his paranoia, the contrast between his domestic stability and his disruptive working life, and his difficulties holding together the final, inferior version of the James Gang, but with the shadow of his own reputation, the version of his life that had already been spun into legend in dozens of books.
Of course, the fact that the myth of the West was forged at the same time as its brutal reality was still unfolding is a subject touched upon by many earlier Westerns, from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Cat Ballou to Buffalo Bill And The Indians.
The film is at its strongest when it deals with this idea most directly, in the wake of the killing, which becomes a massive media event.
But that’s not to say that Pitt doesn’t do a good job while he is on screen, with a mixture of charm, menace, brooding and capacity for sudden violence. His Jesse James is a man who almost certainly invites a death that he knows will round off his story far better than a long decline.
He’s well matched by a perfectly cast Affleck, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford and the excellent Paul Schneider (Park And Recreation’s Mark Brendanwicz) as the gang’s literate member, Dick Liddil. Poor Mary-Louise Parker has almost nothing to do as Zee James.*
It’s a long, slow, movie in which the big set piece action sequence happens early on. It’s carried by narration that sounds straight from the book – I’m mostly OK with that. But it does add a literary tilt to a film that is already pompous, a bit self-important and often, though not always, humourless.
But easily as important as the acting and the themes is the look. It’s one of those films in which every scene is aiming for a memorable image. You might say that surely all films should aspire to that, make every shot count, but the effect can be wearying, giving the narrative little chance to flow.
But it does look great, summoning up visual reminders of early photography, Terence Malick, Ansel Adams, The Searchers, Sergio Leone and Caravaggio. Several moments are almost entirely dark with tiny slithers of light. There is an extraordinary scene in which from the porch of a house we watch two men dressed in black approaching: it’s a perfect piece of composition. The film was shot by the great Roger Deakins, the British cinematographer whose hefty filmography includes most of the Coen brothers’ movies and The Shawshank Redemption.
There’s more to sink your teeth into here than with than Pitt’s subsequent movie with director Andrew Dominik, Killing Them Softly. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a film of massive ambition. It shares some of the ideas of the anti-Westerns of the 1970s - it reminds me in places of Bad Company, The Hired Hand and McCabe & Mrs Miller, but lacks their anarchic intent. Instead, it aims for classic status, which is often a path to stultifying tedium. I think it comes good in the end, but it’s a close thing.
* It’s one of those films in which characters are addressed often by the full names in a rather declamatory manner.
PS: My favourite thing inspired by this film is this – I guess it counts as an indirect spoiler, so you might not want to watch before you’ve seen the movie.