VOD film review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Simon Kinnear | On 20, Aug 2015Reading time: 5 mins
Director: Andrew Dominik
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell
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What is it with Australian directors? They take absolutely ages to make films. Baz Luhrmann averages over five years between movies; George Miller is even tardier. And Andrew Dominik took seven years to follow-up his incendiary debut, Chopper (and has released only one more, Killing Them Softly, in the eight years since).
The long title and even longer running time of TAOJJBTCRF is almost a parodic confirmation that, for the Aussies, these things take time. In this case, though, it was worth the wait. While it only takes 10 words to print the legend, it takes Dominik’s sprawling, startlingly assured and brilliantly acted movie to set the record straight.
There have, of course, been countless films about Jesse James, a man whose exploits came at just the right time to ride the crest of cinema’s wave for over a century. Most have concentrated on the myth of the outlaw but Dominik, a director whose career shows a fascination with the ambiguous projections of celebrity onto criminals, takes a more ambitious slant. He’s in good company: to date, the only director to tackle Ford’s side of the story was Sam Fuller (in the self-explanatory debut, I Shot Jesse James), a director who is similarly transfixed by the dark poetry of violence.
This is a meaty subject for the movies and Dominik proves up to the challenge: if Chopper occasionally suggested him as a voyeur of true crime fiction, here he presents a much more mature, considered picture by showing the flipside to the self-promoting antics of the media-savvy criminal. For all the apparent glamour of Jesse’s lifestyle, it doesn’t look any fun at all. Dominik depicts crime as a trap for everyone involved, and the gang is undone less by the threat posed by the law than by its own insularity, gnawing away at itself in isolation from society. For a Western, this is remarkably slow to go outside and the film becomes a study of the gloomy interiors that everyone skulks around in. The constant, claustrophobic presence of wood makes it feel like the characters are halfway inside their coffins already, aided by suitably weather-beaten performances from Jesse’s gang (including the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell, king-of-gnarliness Sam Shepard and a pre-fame Jeremy Renner).
So while James might be charismatic, swaggering and iconic, he’s also paranoid, brutal and has a malevolence in his eyes that smacks of madness. It’s a brilliant game-raising performance by Brad Pitt; at the time, it was certainly his best beyond his work with David Fincher and helped cement his acting credentials ahead of Moneyball and The Tree Of Life. Only a bona fide movie star could do justice to James’ stature, but Pitt invests it with a more thoughtful conception, almost an ironic acceptance of the link between James’ reputation and his own stardom, forever hiding from attention and unsure of who to trust.
Even so, it must be galling to be upstaged, but that’s undeniably what happened to Pitt here… and, to add insult to injury, by an actor who had already stolen Pitt’s other film of 2007. Casey Affleck was the best thing about Ocean’s 13, and repeated that triumph here: his Oscar nomination suggested that a hugely talented actor had emerged from his brother’s shadow, although Ben has since fought back. Affleck-the-younger gives a selfless performance, making Robert Ford the prototypical fan boy through an unflattering assemblage of awkward body language, ashen skin, droopy eyelids and a nasal whine. Ford is slimy and loathsome but also pitiable and somehow sympathetic, a case study of the awfulness of being in the shadow of greatness. His tragedy is even more pronounced than, say, Salieri in Amadeus, because he genuinely loves the man he must kill.
Of course, no matter how good Affleck is, this remains a “Brad Pitt movie”, an irony that’s probably lost on nobody given the subject matter. The film’s masterstroke is to build up Ford’s role to a point where his killing of Jesse seems eminently sensible, even laudable, only for that brief moment of glory to unravel during the final act, until the bitter tang of gossip and scandal has irreversibly tainted Ford’s actions as… well, an assassination carried out by a coward. The implication is that deeds alone are not quite enough to survive posterity. Ultimately, it’s really a matter of charisma; Ford’s forlorn attempts to play the PR game only serve to make Jesse look even more exotic and mysterious, and not even the fact that Ford’s assistant is played by Zooey Deschanel can out-charm the late Mr Pitt.
It’s a brilliant achievement by Dominik, highlighting his career-long interest in off-kilter pacing and absolute assurance of technique. Where Chopper was fidgety and neurotic, this is stillness itself (and often languidly beautiful: the lantern-lit preparations for the opening heist are spell-bindingly beautiful, and probably earned cinematographer Roger Deakins his Oscar nod within minutes of the film beginning). Accompanied by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score (an elegy with just a hint of fairytale), Dominik’s expertly handled set pieces, notably the titular assassination, slow down time to focus with unyielding clarity on each and every detail. The narration, meanwhile, strikes a tone of wry, detached amusement worthy of Orson Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons, another story of the unanticipated effects of progress in deciding history’s winners and losers.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.