Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The (2007): Andrew Dominik Western, Starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck

Venice Film Fest 2007 (Competition)–Inventive in narrative structure, contemplative in tone, evocative of the Old West, and significant as a retelling of a mythic saga with a fresh perspective, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is nothing short of brilliant.

Alongside with Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men,” which is a Western in disguise, or rather a modern Western, “Assassination of Jesse James” is the second masterpiece of the season, one that immediately positions itself as a major revisionist work about he legendary criminal Jesse James, as well as a resonant deconstruction of the roots of one of the most persistent problems in American history and culture: The complex link between crime and fame, and the obsession with celebrity. For those who think that these are new problems that define and plague our culture, the movie serves as a useful reminder that they have been around for over a century.

On another level, it’s hard to think of a director in recent times who has made such a huge leap to the major league of filmmaking as Aussie Andrew Dominik, who previously helmed the rather modest but well-executed “Chopper,” based on the life story of the notorious Australian criminal Chopper Read. Traveling the global festival circuit, “Chopper” was a film that many critics (including myself) admired but few people saw, due to its subject matter, national origins, and limited theatrical distribution.

“Assassination of Jesse James” world premieres in competition at the Venice Film Festival, which kicks off August 29, before going to Toronto Film Fest and opening wide later next month.

At the risk of overselling the film, since my review is written right after watching it, my impression is that Dominik has made a poignant modernist Western that ranks with Arthur Penn’s achievement in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), Same Peckinpah’s grand, eloquent Westerns (specifically “The Wild Bunch,” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”) and Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” “Assassination of Jesse James” should place Dominik in the forefront of Hollywood’s new, bright, and visionary filmmakers.

What’s amazing about Dominik’s film, which he also wrote, is that it’s not violent at all, not by standards of Westerns films of the 1970s, and certainly not by standards of today’s actioners. Instead, he made the very shrewd decisions to offer a new angle on the mythic saga of a criminal like Jesse James and to follow his central characters and their entourages well after James’ notorious death.

Basically, “Assassination of Jesse James” is a study of jealousy, obsession and revenge, centering on the legendary hero’s nemesis outlaw Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, in a career defining performance) and his deadly, destructive and self-destructive preoccupation with America’s most notorious figure at the time.

Early on, the film, which has had a long, troubled history, was billed as a Brad Pitt vehicle, due to the fact that Pitt is also the producer (See Essay). However, though Jesse James is the feature’s nominal hero, the central figure is decidedly Bob Ford, since most of the personal and historical events are depicted from his subjective POV.

The other innovative device chosen by Dominik is to have an extensive voice-over narration (by Hugh Ross), which links events and also comments on the characters and their actions. As a framing device, the narration offers another layer of storytelling, one that makes the saga more evocative, sort of a poetic ballad, though it may create problems for viewers who favor direct emotional involvement with film characters.

Based on the novel of the same title by Ron Hansen, “Assassination of Jesse James” delves into the public and private lives of America’s most notorious outlaw and his unlikely assassin, the coward Robert Ford, by focusing in great character and period detail on the last year of Jesse James just before his infamous shooting.

Most of the saga is set in 1881, when Jesse James was 34 and his killer Bob Ford was 19. As he plans his next great robbery, Jesse continues to wage war on his enemies, a wild and diverse bunch, all trying to collect the huge reward money and, more importantly, the promised glory that will come with his capture.

But the film is not about plot in the conventional sense of the term, even if many significant events take place in 1881-1882. As writer and helmer, Dominik knows that there have been countless books, plays, and tales about America’s “first bonafide celebrity.” As colorful and fascinating they might have been, most of those yarns, including previous Hollywood films (see Essay), emphasized Jesse’s larger-than-life public persona and daring exploits.

In contrast, like “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Assassination of Jess James” shows that Jesse James was the object of owe and admirationeven to those he robbed and terrorized and to the families of those he admittedly killed. The sensational newspaper and dime novels, that chronicled the Jesse James Gang at its height, during the 1870s, made sure that Jesse was never “just a criminal,” who deserved to be captured and executed.

In other words, the thirst for sensationalistic tales and obsession with celebrities, both legit and illegit, which define our culture today, go back to at least a century ago, right after the Civil War. This is one modernist touch that elevates Dominik’s film way above the norm of a well-told, well-crafted Western. In many ways, “Assassination of Jesse James” is not a Western at all, since in its epic scale (and epic running time of 161 minutes), poetic tone, and visual beauty, it’s an evocative film that speaks to our times in more relevant ways than most stories set at the present.

Who was Jesse James Dominik doesnt pretend or claim to understand him. Instead, he keeps his central figure as a mystery, an enigma, to the very end. He suggests that to some Jesse was a Robin Hood type, targeting banks and railroad owners that exploited poor farmers. To others, Jesse was a man with a tragic cause, a wronged, wounded Confederate solider striking back against the Union that had ruined his life. And there were those who saw him as the last real frontiersman, a symbol of freedom and the American spirit, a charismatic rebel who flouted the law and lived by his own rules and code of ethics.

Who was his killer According to the film Robert Ford was first and foremost an admirer, and man full of contradictions. As youth, Ford was an idealistic, ambitious lad who had devoted his adolescent years to the hope of riding one day alongside his idol. Ford could never imagined, as becomes clear and sad in the film’s last reel, that history would ultimately mark him and stigmatized him as “the dirty little coward,” who didn’t have to balls to engage in a direct shootout, and finally shot Jesse in the back.

Most of the tale is a detailed chronicle of how Ford became a member of Jesse’s inner circle, which ultimately enabled him to bring down a formidable figure that numerous lawmen across a dozen states had tried and failed. The movie is about the evolution of friendship and camaraderie, how Ford and his brother Carley (Sam Rockwell) come to be friends of Jesse and what happened among this trio in the last days and hours leading up to the gunshot that would end one man’s life, Jesse, and become the definition and sum total of another’s, Ford.

Just in case you thought this is a story of three amigos, Dominik enriches the saga by introducing at least a dozen fully developed characters, Jesse’s brother Frank (Sam Shepard), his wife (Mary Louise Parker) and children, his larger family, and entourage of mostly male buddies.

I cannot think of a recent American film that conveys so vividly and powerfully the constant¬†danger, fear,¬† and paranoia under which an individual lives. There’s aways tension in the air, based on Jesse James’ knowledge of how precarious his whole existence is.¬† Thus, an unintentional gesture, a lightly strange look, a dropped object by his friends or family immediately signal potential trouble–and more fear.

The brilliant Oscar-nominated lenser Roger Deakins shot the movie in Canada’s Calgary and Winnipeg, where Clint Eastwood had filmed some of his Westerns. Deakins is an expert of capturing the unique beauty of remote wintry sites, as was evident in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning “Fargo” and their upcoming “No Country for Old Men,” which is very much a Western, albeit set in modern times.

It’s a pleasure to report that, for a change, judging by the film’s end result, the rumors of Dominik’s troubled production are just rumors–or else, the producers corrected the problems, whatever they were. While “Assassination of Jesse James” is a deliberately paced art film in the positive senses of these terms, it’s also as of today one of the best films of the year.

End Note

Two weeks after this review was posted, Brad Pitt won the acting kudo from the Venice Film Festival jury. If the film is successful, Pitt may receive his first Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Cast

Jesse James – Brad Pitt
Robert Ford – Casey Affleck
Frank James – Sam Shepard
Zee James – Mary-Louise Parker
Dick Liddil – Paul Schneider
Wood Hite – Jeremy Renner
Ed Miller – Garret Dillahunt
Dorothy Evans – Zooey Deschanel
Henry Craig – Michael Parks
Sheriff Timberlake – Ted Levine
Charley Ford – Sam Rockwell
Martha Bolton – Alison Elliott
Governor Crittenden – James Carville
Major George Hite – Tom Aldredge
Sarah Hite – Kailin See
Narrator – Hugh Ross

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 161 Minutes

A Warner release presented in association with Virtual Studios of a Scott Free/Plan B Entertainment production.
Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Ridley Scott, Jules Daly, David Valdes.
Executive producers, Brad Grey, Tony Scott, Lisa Ellzey, Benjamin Waisbren.
Directed, written by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editors, Dylan Tichenor, Curtiss Clayton.
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis.
Art director: Troy Sizemore; art director (Winnipeg), Martin Gendron.
Set designers: Grant Van Der Slagt, Marilyn Humphreys, Brad Milburn, Gordon White, Terry Gunvordahl, Michael Madden
Costume designer: Patricia Norris.
Sound: D. Bruce Carwardine.
Sound designers: Richard King, Leslie Shatz, Christopher Aud
Special effects supervisor: James Paradis.
Visual effects: CIS Hollywood.