The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is far from what you might expect out of a western. I’d argue the only thing “western” about the film is the setting, as the story itself plays more akin to a Shakespearean drama. What writer/director Andrew Dominik has crafted for us is an intimate and harshly melancholy character study of the twilight years of the mythological Jesse James. While you might think that Brad Pitt’s Jesse James would be the centerpiece of this escapade, you’d be mistaken. This is as much Casey Affleck’s show as it is Brad’s. The film refrains from simply giving us a “Greatest Hits” highlight reel of Jesse James, and prefers to focus on the somewhat mystifying relationship between Jesse and his infamous assailant Robert Ford.
It’s difficult to put into words all the things that the film gets right. What’s apparent from the first frame is just how spectacular of a cinematographer Roger Deakins is. This same year (2007), Deakins worked with the Coen Brothers on their own understated masterpiece No Country for Old Men, though I would argue Jesse James is a tad more impressive visually. Every frame of this film could hang proud in an art exhibit, and I’m only being slightly hyperbolic when I say that. Deakins finds a way to give the Old West a trodden and bleak aesthetic while remaining strikingly beautiful; a mournful picture of a dying era that, in tandem with a gorgeously somber score from Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, sets a woeful tone that enshrouds the entire narrative.
The cast is phenomenal top to bottom. Brad Pitt as the first half of our title characters commands every scene he’s in thanks not only to his natural charisma, but to his ability to bring the larger-than-life Jesse James down to earth with a performance that feels genuine and deeply personal. Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford shoulders his half of the narrative burden admirably; his portrayal gives us a picture of a strange, flawed man who, by the end of the proceedings, we’re not sure if we should condemn or pity. The supporting cast around our two leads is a veritable laundry list of underappreciated talent including Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel, and Garret Dillahunt, all of who turn in outstanding performances in their more bit parts.
The criticism I see leveled at Jesse James consistently is aimed at the film’s deliberate and methodical pace. Make no mistake, this is a long movie that has no quarrels about taking its time to get where it wants to go. The whole experience plays as a slow, emotional build to the grim fate of its ultimately doomed characters, and is rewarding in that payoff for those who can commit to it’s near three hour run time. Nothing is rushed, and everything we see has its place in the larger picture the film is aspiring to portray. Character depth is essential to the themes at play, and the film makes sure to deliver on that count.
I regret that I’ve only just got around to seeing Jesse James recently, as it likely would have found a spot in my recent top ten films of the past decade somewhere in the top three or four. And that, ultimately, is how I feel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will be remembered: A quiet masterpiece that never quite found the limelight in its time. With There Will be Blood and No Country for Old Men dominating 2007, Jesse James seems to have simply gotten lost amidst the heavy-weights, yet easily holds its own among them when given the opportunity.