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Photo: ‘The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford’/Warner Bros. Pictures
When asked what films I think are most underrated, my top answer is always Brad Pitt’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Dominik’s western is a fantastic genre update and a movingly morbid character study deserving of far more attention. The film centers on the doomed relationship between renowned outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and “Coward” Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), whose reverence for his idol turns into a life-altering obsession with tragic consequences.
An Existential and Revisionist Western
Assassination adopts western tropes in service of a more meditative tone. It is poetic in the best of ways. The opening scene boasts the wonderful piece of narration: “He also had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids, and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” Passages like this signal the film’s more delicate approach to tackling the western and the myth of Jesse James. His flaws, not his strength, are of primary concern to the narrative.
Though Assassination boasts a typically high body count the film doesn’t just show death, it explores it existentially. Death is key to the story, but as a narrative idea rather than a vessel through which cheap melodrama is presented. A sense of doom is apparent from the beginning; you know that Jesse is going to die, and you know that Robert is going to kill him. The foreshadowing is clever in that it refers to the fates of Jesse and other characters simultaneously. Rather than spoiling the film the explanatory title also allows you to examine the varying causes of Jesse’s demise (The ‘assassination’ is also crucially not the ending). In every scene you feel like you are observing a man who is making peace with his mortality- this is made clear every time Jesse kills someone (or something). Each moment of violence accelerates this reckoning, and even when he is off-screen he is described as being plagued with illness. It is astonishing that Jesse’s tragic fate is so moving given how apparent it is that it will occur. I cannot think of a film that conveys a character’s awareness of their own mortality as poignantly, yet as subtly as this.
The tension between Jesse’s self-destructive nature and his contrasting survival instinct is a crucial narrative thrust. He rarely takes off his guns, yet he seems willing to arm his enemies in other ways. The extent to which his downfall is premeditated is a fascinating question to ponder. Indeed the film’s central power lies more in what it has to say about the cause and effect of Jesse’s death than the event itself. The film’s climax is incredibly moving in regards to this, and unusually so – it avoids a big punch moment in favour of a more lingering sense of melancholy.
As a result of this existential tone, the violence in Assassination also seems similarly intended to capture tragedy over sensationalism. Every murder is played without exploitation as if to emphasise the point that violence and death are not to be taken lightly- imagine that in a Western? Death always carries weight- it is never trivialised and each time it occurs it represents a character-defining moment. In one instance a crucial death is deliberately left off-screen, a decision which may seem odd but is actually integral to the film’s final message. This moment and the rest of the film serve as further proof that Assassination is one of few westerns that is about death rather than simply acting as a showcase for it, as is arguably the case with Eastwood and Wayne.
This sense of death hanging in the air affects the tension, too. The film is a slow burn, but burn it does. There is a constant sense of underlying threat even when nothing is happening. The scenes of dialogue increasingly provide this feeling through what must be a record-breaking number of amicable-yet-sinister conversations. It’s the kind of tension that can go unnoticed but becomes unmissable once identified. When violence finally does occur it is tense, brutal, and realistic in its clumsiness. For lack of a better word, it feels real. The anxiety is palpable and there is an absence of gun-toting bravado and polished marksmanship (Ford being an exception, for obvious reasons). The Assassination Of Jesse James is unafraid to be a western, but it fulfils the emotional potential of the genre’s tropes in a way that few films of its type achieve.
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The “Well Written” Robert Ford, and Brad Pitt’s Finest Hour
Robert Ford is arguably the film’s most developed character. His evolution throughout the film is fantastically paced. There is no sudden moment of change, only a slow progression, the enormity of which is apparent only after the film has ended. Ford’s veneration and eventual distrust of Jesse is well rendered and elicits a strange mixture of empathy and dislike. Both he and Jesse are presented multidimensionally- there are no heroes and villains. Though Ford is undoubtedly slimy, you root for him (though not everyone does) because it is obvious that the chip on his shoulder is justified.
Many read his relationship to Jesse as an analogy for our alienating fascination for celebrities, and I certainly agree that his story works on this level. But for me, the power of his arc lies again in its existential leanings in its focus on his relationship to Jesse’s legacy.
Both leads deliver career-best work. Casey Affleck is fantastic, and this is the first time I have seen Brad Pitt disappear so fully into a role. Why this isn’t widely seen as his best performance is beyond me. He basically played a version himself in ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’, as he did in ‘Fight Club’ before it, both of which draw constant praise. Assassination provides a rare example of a transformed Brad Pitt, yet too few bring it up when discussing his greatest performances. To me, this is a shame, and I suspect that he would even agree. He is genuinely menacing at times, vulnerable in others, and always seems real. The supporting cast also offers some good performances, the best of which is Sam Rockwell’s empathetic portrayal of Robert Ford’s brother Charlie.
Technical Perfection with a Purpose – The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
Each of the film’s composite parts is technically immense and well suited to the story and tone. The quiet moodiness of Nick Cave’s score fits the sense of tragedy without being overbearing. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, as usual excellent. His use of tilted lenses brings a welcome sense of intimate memory to Jesse’s and Bob’s portrayal as well as moving the story forward. The huge vistas echo the characters’ loneliness in exactly the way I imagine the script intended. The nocturnal train robbery is also one of the most beautiful sequences Deakins has ever shot (The film, in general, is also one of his favorites). The superficial wonder of the cinematography is undeniable but what is key is that it contributes to the film’s lingering emotional impact.
The Assassination Of Jesse James feels like it is from the period setting, which adds to the intrigue. The dialogue is a little like Robert Eggers’ ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Lighthouse’ in this respect- it makes no concessions to pander to a modern audience. The film is also infinitely re-watchable because it is dense in its exploration of its characters and landscape. For example, details like the fraught relationship between Jesse and his brother are key to his trajectory yet are scattered throughout in a manner that allows them to reveal themselves as important during later viewings. Each time I watch the film I find something new that deepens my connection to the story.
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Despite my love for it, Assassination is admittedly not for everyone. It is slow and attention-demanding. Its narrative takes detours which though important, may lose certain audiences. It is also worth noting that (though this will have been apparent in my review thus far) it is a serious film about serious things. It’s almost total lack of jollity means it requires a certain mood to be consumed properly. If you do not like films that obsess over death and put tragedy at the forefront, then this may not appeal to you. That being said, it contains softness and poetry which renders its seriousness melancholy instead of dour- an important distinction.
I implore all film fans who have thus far ignored The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford to give it a chance. It is a moving and existential tragedy that manages to replace melodrama with poignancy and character depth. It is revisionist in the best of ways and should appeal to both western fans and genre skeptics. Technically, it is awe-inspiring to behold.
A truly unique piece of work that will continue to stand the test of time.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins) and Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck).
Produced by: Ridley Scott, Brad Pitt, David Valdes, Dede Gardner, Jules Daley.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Schneider.
Music: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis | Editing: Curtiss Clayton & Dylan Tichenor | Cinematography: Roger Deakins
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Amhara Chamberlayne is a graduate in English Literature from Warwick University who shares Hollywood Insider’s passion for cinema. When he is not watching films he is writing about them. Uninterested in gossip and agenda, Amhara instead believes in sharing his honest individual reaction to cinema. He enjoys the multi-variant reactions films elicit and believes his take is just as valid as others. For Amhara, the joy lies in the exchange of opinions.