The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford | A Mesmerising Modern Classic Turns 10

For a lot of filmgoers, if you describe a film as ‘slow-paced’, ‘lengthy’, or ‘meditative’, they will bolt for the exit. It’s understandable. Nowadays, the public’s appetite is for cinematic offerings that are lean, punchy and easy to follow: We love Greg, he’s a great guy; Greg has betrayed us and stolen the bomb; we have disarmed the bomb and killed Greg. And while The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a slow-paced, lengthy and meditative film, it’s also absorbing, memorable, and something of a modern classic.

Before we discuss why, let’s get some housekeeping out of the way. The film, released ten years ago back in aught seven, was the second feature of Australian director Andrew Dominik, with Brad Pitt starring as the titular outlaw, Jesse James. It tells the story of Robert Ford’s obsession with the famed gunslinger, and how that obsession slowly morphs from devotion, to murderous betrayal. It was received warmly upon release, with particular praise directed at Casey Affleck, for his portrayal as the brooding and awkward Ford.

Of the film’s many qualities, two shine the brightest: the performances, and the film’s unique look and presentation. Pitt and Affleck lead a great cast featuring the late Sam Shepard as Jesse’s older brother Frank, and Sam Rockwell as Robert Ford’s dopey and gregarious sibling Charley. Also present is Jeremy Renner, before his career blew up – no pun intended – in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker a year later.

While Affleck received the most praise for his breakout role in the film, Pitt is equally vital. He’s perfectly suited for the role as Jesse James. As a Hollywood pin up of the 90s and 00s, his fading, but still potent looks perfectly encapsulate this gritty and flawed version of Jesse James. There are plenty of actors who could’ve played James well, but Pitt’s status and presence lends the character a real sense of mythos, which is ideal for the story that Dominik is trying to tell.  

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. -
Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Source

Andrew Dominik has always been interested in men of violence. His debut Chopper told the story of infamous Australian criminal Mark ‘Chopper’ Reid in a darkly humourous and unflinching way. His follow up to Jesse James, Killing Them Softly, showed crime in the modern age as a cold, businesslike, capitalist pursuit, with Pitt again in the lead. And in Jesse James, there is a clear message: this guy is charismatic and magnetic, but the reality is that he is a criminal, and criminals are bad people. While the film is presented in a dreamlike manner – there are numerous shots of the beautiful scenery, presented in vivid time lapse sequences throughout the film – James’ actions are portrayed clinically. He brutalises people in the film, and it’s not presented as a cool outlaw’s antics, it shown as sad and pathetic deed. The character is legendary, but the actions are brutal and unworthy of reverence.

Affleck’s Ford is our proxy for this revelation. The James he knows is the daring cowboy of dime store comics. We see, with him, the truth behind the myth. Pitt’s James seems detached and weary, as if the weight of his own legend is draining and eroding him.

The film’s cinematography is its other defining quality. It was shot mostly in Alberta, Canada, and the filmmakers make perfect use of the cold and moody landscape. Dominik and Cinematographer Roger Deakins used several unique visual methods to give the film its magical feel. They used a visual palette of mainly browns and blacks, which gives a look that is simultaneously bleak and dreamlike. Throughout the film there are slight fades and aberrations at the edges of certain shots, which was an attempt to emulate the look of an old photograph.

The unique look of Deakin's work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. -
The unique look of Deakins’ work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Source

There are dozens of gorgeous shots; one of the most notable is during the train robbery early on in the film. Preceding the train’s arrival, the screen is blanketed in darkness, then the lights of the train glide into view, lights that spill through the branches of the surrounding forest, onto the faces of the masked train robbers. It’s a beautiful visual moment in a film loaded with them.

The film’s great visuals are also buoyed by its soundtrack. Composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the music is stately and emotive, which perfectly complements the sense of melancholy that runs through the film.

While it was generally well received, the film wasn’t universally praised. Some critics disliked the long run time and slow pace of the story. Looking at it again, perhaps there are some scenes that could’ve been trimmed or removed entirely, but then you’d still find a convincing argument to keep those scenes in. Like the subplot dealing with the rivalry between Wood Hite and Dick Liddil, played by Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner. It wasn’t essential to the plot, but it leads to one of the film’s most gripping scenes. There’s also a reasonably lengthy epilogue which focuses on Robert Ford’s fortunes after the titular assassination. That could have been trimmed too, sure, but it provides some of the film’s most affecting scenes, as well as a beautifully random Nick Cave cameo.  

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor. It didn’t receive a Best Film nod, which seems curious. It was unlucky to be released in the same year as both There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, both towering films that deservedly swept the Oscars the following year. The other films that took the remaining three Best Film spots were Atonement (understandable, it ticks a lot of the Academy boxes), Juno (ok, it had momentum due to Ellen Page’s breakout performance and Diablo Cody’s lively screenplay), and Michael Clayton (come on).  

Ultimately, it’s a film that has aged magnificently. Its vivid visuals, gorgeous soundtrack and great performances have imbued it with a timeless quality. As a genre, the Western is mostly dormant. Modern Westerns tend to be genre exercises or pastiches, mere emulation. While Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven feels like the final word of the Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford provides a poetic postscript.

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