The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford * * * * 1/2

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Director: Andrew Dominik.
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Alison Elliott, James Carville, Tom Aldredge, Pat Healy, Nick Cave.
Narrator: Hugh Ross.

In 2000, director Andrew Dominik exploded onto the scene with low-budget but powerful biographical film “Chopper” about Australian criminal Mark Brandon Read. It not only heralded the arrival of actor Eric Bana but also a new an uncompromising director. For his second feature he tackled another biographical feature about one of the wild west’s most notorious gunslingers and this time, Dominik took his uncompromising nature even further.

Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded – either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.

Few film’s ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That’s testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik’s vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film’s style is apparent. It’s sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don’t shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik’s direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience’s sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities – including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between ‘the man and the myth‘. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I’m not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters’ motivations. There’s a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn’t quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it’s unclear why he’d open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men’s lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik’s original 4 hour cut – that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it’s 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it’s not far off it.

A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It’s highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it’s beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it’s just a tad too long winded.

Mark Walker

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42 Responses to “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford * * * * 1/2”

  1. So I guess it goes without saying that you are eagerly anticipating KILLING THEM SOFTLY?

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  2. NIce write up dude!! Still haven’t seen this film, but I own it so I’m halfway there! Loved Chopper btw, Bana was incredible in it.

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  3. ray brayne Says:

    I used to be reminded of “Days of Heaven” every time I saw long shots of the prairie. Now I see it as the reason for the madness in films like “Fargo”. When faced with infinite bleakness men go nuts! This films’ all about obsessive compulsion! What drives Ford? He’s nuts. His hero worship of James is all he thinks of. Jesse even says; “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” But he can’t, can he. Ultimately the only lasting connection he can make is to be his murderer! I think the film explains this very well, what it doesn’t clear up is why Jesse allowed himself to be put in this position. Dominik has no answer. He did this before. Remember in “Chopper”, Chopper gets stabbed by his pal but keeps on talking to him until he sees blood and feels betrayal! I guess we’ll never know exactly why guys like Mark David Chapman do what they do.

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    • Thats a good point Ray. The exposure to emptiness and isolation could drive anyone insane. I think Jesse’s mental state was certainly fragile, as well as Ford’s but like you say, I couldn’t get over why Jesse would put himself into that dangerous position. It’s a big question that hovers over the film. Apart from that and slightly sluggish moments, the film was excellent.

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  4. Excellent writing as always. I thought this movie was really good but it was REALLYYYYYYY long. I think it took me three tries to get through it all. But the execution was excellent.

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  5. You’re absolutely right, I could watch this movie for the cinematography alone. It is a bit long but when every shot is so deliberate and looks as beautiful as this film it’s easy to forgive if you’re into that sort of thing. An underrated gem for sure.

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  6. Great review, this right here is one of my favorite movies, the cinematography and the score are incredibly gorgeous, the acting is great and despite being long the film held my interest throughout. I hope 4hour long director’s cut will be released someday.

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    • Thanks Sati. Yeah, Dominik and Deakins find beauty in the everyday things. I’d be very eager to see the 4 hour cut if they ever release it. If anything, (despite the slow pace) I think the film would better for being longer.

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  7. Fine look at a film I’m moving up to watch (because of your review), Mark. Thanks.

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  8. sanclementejedi Says:

    Sign me up to watch that four hour cut of the film. I saw this a few years ago and thought it was great. I can’t imagine the extra details in the 4 hr version. Sweet write up Mark

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    • Cheers Adam. Yeah, I’ll sign on the dotted line for that myself. I think the female characters would probably play a bigger role in the longer cut. It seemed to me that their screen time suffered in the time reduction. Or maybe it was just more shots of landscapes and further lingering on male angst. Who knows? But I’d be into it.

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  9. To be honest with you, I’m not interested in seeing this because of Pitt, and having Jeremy Renner in it doesn’t help either. But I do like Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell, so I might give it a shot one of these days since you like it so much πŸ™‚

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    • I forgot, your not a fan of Pitt are you? He’s really good in this. Affleck steals the show though. It’s a very unsettling performance and as always Rockwell is fine support. It’s a good film Ruth, if your patient with it. The pace can drag a little.

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  10. I have not ever got around to watching this one Mark. Maybe I should. Thanks for the review.

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    • It’s worth a look Scott. It won’t appeal to everyone but if you enjoy the stuff that Terrence Malick does then this should do the job. It’s like his style in a lot of ways.

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  11. Great review Mark, this is yet another I kep meaning to see. Some people have said they hate it, whilst others say it’s their favourite film. Think I need to see for myself.

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  12. Great review! I still remember the fantastic cinematography and the amazing work by Pitt and especially Affleck, who deserved the Oscar.

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    • Thanks Fernando. Couldn’t agree more. Such a gorgeous film and the two leads were outstanding.

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      • I just checked and Javier Bardem won that year for NCFOM. Any other year, Affleck should’ve won but Javier Bardem deserved every ounce of that Oscar. It was a fantastic Best Supporting Category in 2007. Apart from Bardem and Affleck, it had Philip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson’s War), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) and Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton).

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      • That’s a fine line up indeed Fernando. Any one of those actors could have deservingly won the award that year. I often wonder sometimes though, how much of the character actually wins the award rather than the performance itself. Not to take away from Bardem (he was superb) but his character was a beauty. I find the same with Kevin Spacey’s performance in The Usual Suspects. He was great but his character was better. I actually feel that Brad Pitt deserved it that year 12 Monkeys. Often the power of a character can overshadow the actual acting on display. If that even makes sense?

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      • Yes, it does make sense. Maybe that’s why Bardem won. He gave a superb performance but the voters realized that the character he played was one for the ages. Affleck was stunning but the character wasn’t THAT special. Like Bardem and NCFOM, when a fantastic character and a fantastic performance come together, great things happen. Heath Ledger as The Joker is an example.

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      • Very true Fernando. When both come together it’s always a special delivery we get. As much as I loved Bardem though, I thought Affleck had the tougher role and he played it to perfection.

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  13. 4.5 booo! πŸ˜‰ I will bestow a worthwhile comment on your review shortly my friend!

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