The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford… 2007, Produced by Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt/ Directed by Andrew Dominik/ Distributed by Warner Bros.
A rare example of historical fiction… truthful to its source material. Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, this film is sparse, bleak and absolutely riveting. The story dramatizes the relationship between James and his killer, Ford. Not a shoot’em up western like most Jesse James films are, this psychological portrait details the final months of the man’s life. Hansen crafts the best parts of his novel into a script that is remarkably historically accurate. Andrew Dominik’s patient direction and Roger Deakins’ stunning photography bring the period into stunning view. The landscapes of Alberta, Canada which serve as late 19th century midwestern America, are moving in their emptiness. The scenery all but becomes a cast member it is so prominent. The longer running time (160 minutes) allows characters to be properly introduced and developed.
Brad Pitt is menacing in the title role… with minimal screen time. His James is outwardly cunning and deadly, while warm and protective of his personal life. Pitt’s presence on the screen elicits fear from the other characters, except for Casey Affleck’s break out performance as Robert Ford. Ford grew up idolizing James and lived his childhood dreams of riding with the famous outlaw. Torn between making a name for himself and gaining recognition from his idol, Ford ultimately betrayed James and was forgotten. Affleck’s performance is skillfully unsettling, capturing the socially awkward Ford and his dangerous brand of hero-worship. A masterful sequence features Ford confronting a folk singer (Nick Cave) during a rendition of “Jesse James” and correcting the history behind the lyrics. The onlookers aren’t interested in the story behind the song, just as they care little about the man who killed the legend. It is difficult to find historical film making at this level.
A strong supporting cast… including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt give strong performances. The only disappointment is an early departure of Frank James, gruffly portrayed by Sam Shephard. James Carville makes an enjoyable cameo as Thomas Crittenden, Governor of Missouri. The film lags in spots, and the images of landscapes can feel repetitive. The film is meticulous with its recreation of the pre-industrial midwest; as well as the accurate depictions of life in post-bellum America. Violence is depicted sparingly, but when shown it is fierce, realistic, and unsettling.
Many critics compared this movie… to revisionist westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Dead Man. In many ways, this is a true western. Its care for historic realism elevates it above traditional conceptions of the genre. The strong performances (especially by Affleck) secures it a place among the very best westerns ever made.