The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Review by Jack Foley
IT TAKES guts, determination and skill in abundance to realise a vision as unique and breathtaking as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
It’s credit, then, to the combined talents of star and producer Brad Pitt, executive producer Ridley Scott and, above all, director Andrew Dominik that this revisionist Western has emerged as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is despite a lengthy production period.
In lesser hands, the film could have become a traditionalist shoot ‘em up that was more about the bullets than the brains. Dominik, however, has crafted a beguiling epic that tips its hat to the beauty and surrealism of Terrence Malick and the raw violence of Sam Peckinpah, as well as Sergio Leone and Unforgiven-era Clint Eastwood.
The Assassination of Jesse James is therefore a stunning ode to the revisionist West that reflects on the passing of legends and eras, and the effects of hero worship and obsession. It’s a hypnotic journey that unfolds at a slow, deliberate pace, thereby allowing every single moment to be savoured and enjoyed.
The film picks up as the James gang begins to disband and train-robber and murderer Jesse James (Pitt) finds himself struggling to cope with the demons and doubts created by his outlaw life and the legend surrounding it.
New gang member Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), meanwhile, finally realises his ambition of riding with his hero, only to find that James is far more dangerous and unstable than the stories suggest. When offered the chance to decisively bring the James era to an end, he reluctantly accepts the grim undertaking unaware of the consequences that will follow.
At its core, the film offers a fascinating glimpse into the hearts and minds of two very different men that’s served by some exceptional performances.
Both Pitt and Affleck are outstanding – the former bringing the same edgy intensity to James that has contributed to his very best roles in Fight Club, Twelve Monkeys and Se7en.
His James is a hopelessly conflicted career criminal – a lost soul haunted by his own celebrity who has become painfully aware of his own impending death. Prone to bouts of violence and rage, James is now a desperate figure living in the shadow of his own myth.
Ford, on the other hand, is a stars-truck wannabe who finds himself manipulated by everyone around him – and Affleck perfectly captures his sense of wonder, anxiety and fear as the magnitude of his task becomes clear.
It’s a portrayal that perfectly captures the fine balance between worship and obsession that simultaneously juggles elements of weakness and conviction.
But the performances don’t end there. Sam Rockwell is equally superb as Charley Ford, especially when wrestling his divided loyalties, while the likes of Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, as gang members Wood Hite and Dick Liddil, and Sam Shepard, as Frank James make their mark.
Dominik also deserves maximum praise for resolutely keeping faith in his vision, in spite of studio pressure, for he has created a distinct vision that benefits greatly from the beautiful, even distorted, cinematography of screen veteran Roger Deakins (of Coen brothers/Shawshank Redemption fame).
The overall result is an epic masterpiece that comfortably deserves to be recognised as one of the films of the year – and one of the greatest Westerns of all time. Surely, major awards recognition is beckoning…
Running time: 2hrs 40mins
UK DVD Release: March 31, 2008
- Buy the 2-disc set (HMV)
- Buy the single disc (HMV)
- Buy the 2-disc set (Amazon)
- Buy the single disc (Amazon)
- Buy it on Blu-ray (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Brad Pitt interview
- Casey Affleck interview
- Andrew Dominik (director) interview
- View our Jesse James photo gallery
- Brad Pitt talks parenting at Venice
- Brad Pitt at Venice in photos
- Jesse James preview