Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Garrett Dillahunt
Director: Andrew Dominik
Mood: If you’re feeling particularly angsty and need to fuel your inner demons with something dark but still want to watch a Western.
You never know what you’re going to get when you watch a Revisionist Western. I wouldn’t call it my favourite subgenre of Westerns. Sometimes they do something fascinating and unique. Other times, these movies are just confusing.
I’ve seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford several times, and fortunately, it falls into the ‘fascinating and unique’ category.
This is a super bleak film – and I say film because this is no mere movie. It’s a work of art on every level. The story is deep. The mood is agonizingly grim.
And the haunting score by dark musical geniuses Nick Cave and Warren Ellis makes me want to wear all black and stare for hours out of a rainy window. It’s SO GOOD that after writing that sentence, I broke my personal rule of writing in silence to play the soundtrack while I wrote this review.
This isn’t the cheeky, sexy American Outlaws version of the James Gang. It’s not an action movie. It’s an intimate look at the relationship between an intensely paranoid Jesse James and his fanboy killer.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford couldn’t have a more literal title. You know what you’re going to get as far as the outcome – but the story isn’t the one we’re all used to hearing and seeing.
It begins shortly before the James Gang’s final train robbery. Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) is already a member of the gang, and his younger brother Robert ‘Bob’ (Casey Affleck) is desperate to join. He’s painfully awkward around Jesse (Brad Pitt), but Jesse is running out of men – the Younger boys had already been arrested at this point – so he lets Bob do small tasks for him.
Bob’s obsession with Jesse grows. At one point the guys find a box full of Jesse James memorabilia that he’s been toting around. Meanwhile, Jesse is busy hunting down every former friend who crossed him. Jesse’s moods get worse, and he makes fun of Bob, thinking he’s pathetic and an easy target.
Big mistake. Bob is extremely sensitive, and heavily underestimated. And we all know how that turned out for Jesse.
The Assassination of Jesse James is kind of a whole-body experience, if that makes sense. It’s like a somber Western ballad, come to life. There’s no hero here. Everyone has major character flaws, and not in the fun ‘bad boy you want to fix’ kind of way.
Early in the film, Frank James (Sam Shepard) says to Robert Ford, “I don’t know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies.” This somehow neatly sums up Affleck’s performance as Bob, yet also barely scratches the surface.
When I said it’s a whole-body experience, part of what I meant was Bob. Affleck is so good as the simpering, jealous creep who wants a piece of Jesse that it makes your skin crawl… because you just know he wishes he could climb inside Jesse’s skin and become one with him. You’re supposed to hate him, you do hate him, but you have to admit that he MAKES the whole damn film what it is.
Shia LeBoeuf and Ryan Gosling also auditioned for the part of Bob, but I really think this is the best it could have been played.
Brad Pitt is unlikable in totally different ways, and it’s delivered equally well. His Jesse is so ruthless and dead inside, it fully evokes the man who did so many heinous things in his young life. Pitt has this way of disappearing into his characters’ crazies, and you’re constantly on edge waiting for him to explode.
Apparently descendants of James have said that of all the movies about his life, this one is the most accurate and they attribute it to Pitt and Affleck’s performances (which is kind of unfair, given the amount of research author Ron Hansen put into the book that the script is based upon).
Everyone does a fine job, especially the actors playing the other Gang members. They fully capture what it would have felt like to have ridden with Jesse and know his capabilities, and to know you didn’t stand a chance once he turned on you. They’re all falling apart both mentally and physically, just waiting for the inevitable.
Garrett Dillahunt is always my favourite in everything, and does a lot with the smaller role of Ed Miller. Paul Schneider is another standout as Dick Liddil.
Of all the awards for which this film was nominated – and it was nominated for a LOT of awards – you see one name all over them: cinematographer Roger Deakins.
He put so much into every little detail, from the somber black and brown tones to the stunning night scenes and blurred, vintage effects, that he even pioneered a new technique. He apparently said that the scene where the train arrives in the dark and appears to be lit only by lanterns was a career high-point.
I’m no film geek, but even I know that the cinematography was a delicious visual treat for those who appreciate this kind of thing.
Somehow The Assassination of Jesse James was a box office flop, but the critics loved it. It’s not for everybody. If you like classic John Wayne-style Westerns, you might find it too artsy and slow. But if you need something to pass a particularly bleak afternoon, or if you’re just feel extra goth tonight, this one’s for you.