Director: Andrew Dominik; Screenplay: Andrew Dominik based on the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen; Cinematography: Roger Deakins; Studio: Warner Bros.; Producers: Ridley Scott, Jules Daly, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, and David Valdes
Cast: Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Casey Affleck (Robert “Bob” Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), Paul Schneider (Dick Liddil), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Garret Dillahunt (Ed Miller), Mary-Louise Parker (Zerelda “Zee” James), Zooey Deschanel (Dorothy Evans), Alison Elliot (Martha Bolton), Kailin See (Sarah Hite), James Carville (Gov. Thomas T. Crittenden), Michael Parks (Henry Craig), Ted Levine (Sheriff James Timberlake), Michael Copeman (Ed O’Kelley), Hugh Ross (Narrator)
- “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?”
Now we arrive at my final true contender for the top film of the 2000s. When I repeated numerous times that there were two films remaining in the decade that I put on the same lofty pedestal as a masterpiece like Mulholland Dr., I had to bite my tongue to not start discussing them right away. I managed to keep from spilling the beans on The New World and now, fortunately, we’ve reached 2007 and I can begin my gushing for this most lyrical of westerns. I had also dropped another slight hint as to the possible appearance of this film in the countdown in 1992’s review of Unforgiven. In praising that Eastwood film, I declared that it was at such a high level that there was only one other western released in the last 30 years that approached it. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter to be abbreviated as simply The Assassination of Jesse James), is that one western. And not only does it approach the greatness of Unforgiven, it is every bit an equal.
Before going straight into discussing it, though, I want to stop and acknowledge what an incredible year 2007 was for American cinema. It was a good year for movies around the world, but in particular American filmmakers trotted out one brilliant film after another. Two of the most acclaimed of the decade, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, were locked in a dead heat for Best Picture. Both routinely appear near the top of “best of the decade” polls. Celebrated films like Zodiac, Juno, Michael Clayton, and Eastern Promises would have been standouts in nearly any year. Pixar released another standout with Ratatouille. And if you want to cheat a bit and expand things to “English-speaking cinema” and include the British-led Atonement, the list becomes even more impressive. In my opinion, this is one of the finest years in American film in recent memory.
All of which may explain why a film like The Assassination of Jesse James received such little mainstream buzz in terms of awards, best films lists, and other superficial achievements. There were certainly critics who championed the film, and from doing a little surfing around the blogosphere I see that there are a considerable number of cineastes who rank it as high as I do. Still, there is no question that it was often lost in the shuffle of the great films listed above, frequently ignored in the debate that raged between No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Rest assured, there is no debate or indecision here. In a year that could have been a major headache to choose a single top film, The Assassination of Jesse James makes the selection a no-brainer. Not only do I think it’s the top film of 2007, but I would put it in the top two or three of the decade and equally as high on a personal all-time westerns list.
Andrew Dominik’s film is a western in setting and subject matter, but not necessarily in the traditional style. To be sure, it contains a few sequences of customary gunplay and tough guy machismo, but these are spaced intermittently across the nearly three-hour runtime. Normally a western without shootouts is like a comedy without jokes, but the story adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel is not concerned with the actual violence and robberies of Jesse James and his gang. There is no need to continually showcase violent sequences. It is rightfully assumed that after seeing just a single spectacular train robbery, the audience is fully aware of the violence and ruthlessness that Jesse is capable of. Instead, the focus is on the myth that comes to surround everything about the notorious outlaw. It is hero worship played out in the nineteenth century, as a man who makes his living sticking up rail lines and killing those who get in his way has achieved celebrity status throughout the country. The plot unfolds as a psychoanalytic study of both the icon Jesse James and admirer Robert Ford. The closer Bob gets to his idol, the quicker the myth of the benevolent bandit begins to crumble.
The story opens as the gang of Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) James assemble in preparation of a daring train robbery. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), who has spent his entire adolescence following the exploits of the James brothers, approaches and begs both Jesse and Frank to let him come along on the raid. After being rebuffed by the cantankerous Frank, he manages to convince Jesse to allow him to join the gang. Helping his cause is the fact that his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is a longtime cohort. The actual robbery, taking place within the first fifteen minutes, might be the most spectacular sequence of the entire film. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is in complete control, using contrasting lights and shadows in constructing an eerie montage. The use of flickering lights and torches, creating dancing shadows in the nearby woods and playing across the vigilante masks of the gang contribute to a haunting atmosphere. Something as simple as tracking the front headlight of the approaching train, making it the only thing to pierce the blackness of the dark night, is brilliant in its simplicity.
The gang disperses after the robbery and the story follows them to various locations. Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) travel to Kentucky to stay with James relatives. Charley travels to stay with the brothers’ widowed sister Martha (Alison Elliot). Bob, meanwhile, is on cloud nine when Jesse instructs him to stay back. Other gang members are immediately jealous and Bob basks in the minor distinction. Jesse slowly begins to learn what a hero he has long been to Bob. Growing up, Bob kept a shoebox full of James-related mementos, ranging from newspaper clippings to nickel books glorifying the outlaw. Jesse seems to keep Bob around out of a combination of enjoying the ego boost brought by having a young sycophant at hand and to use him as his personal gofer. But the closer Bob gets to his idol, the less enamored he remains. Far from the Robin Hood portrayed in the news clippings, he finds himself constantly on the receiving end of Jesse’s manic outbursts. He becomes a witness to the insecure, vindictive personality of a man on the run. This is not a glamorous life led by Jesse and his family. Forced to constantly move from one safe house to another, and always convinced that those closest to him are plotting his demise, Jesse manages to alienate someone who once looked up to him as a parishioner would a minister.
Aspiring to the same fame and celebrity as Jesse, Bob realizes that he will never achieve it by tagging along as a sidekick. Instead, he decides to get in touch with Police Commissioner Henry Craig (Michael Parks), declaring that he can lead the authorities to the most famous outlaw in the world. After striking an official deal with the governor of Missouri (James Carville), Bob also brings his brother Charley and Dick Liddil into the plot. The story then is converted into a cat and mouse game, as Bob maneuvers to stay close enough to Jesse to bring about his capture, but not reveal his intentions to the always-suspicious killer. The tension is heightened with each passing moment, as it eventually becomes clear that the two sides in the “struggle” are playing out a shadowboxing routine. Jesse seems to know that somebody in his gang has turned on him, but never directly acts on his suspicion. Bob and Charley remain in constant fear that Jesse will uncover their conspiracy, but feel themselves in too deep to turn back.
The title of the film gives away the end of the chess game, but I won’t reveal the exact mechanics of how it plays out. There is some irony in the title though, as Bob is not exactly portrayed as a coward. As a quirky, shifty person, yes, but not necessarily a coward. And Jesse is not the traditional romanticized outlaw seen as central characters of most westerns. He is hardly likable. Thus, at least in my mind, I never experienced much sympathy for the situation Jesse found himself in. The final chapter to the story serves as a coda in the life of the man who killed Jesse James. Believing that this feat would lead him to great fame and fortune, Bob is instead haunted by the entire episode, earning a living by reenacting the assassination in a stage play. Labeled a coward and a traitor, he becomes one of the most despised personalities in the country.
The most obvious comparison for a film like this would be with a filmmaker that I have praised quite a bit recently – Terrence Malick. Visually, there are a number of similarities to Malick’s Days of Heaven. I don’t know enough about the mechanics to say whether the films are similar in technical respects, but The Assassination often has scenic shots of nature that are similar to those in Days of Heaven. Additionally, it adopts a pace similar to that found in all of Malick’s work, moving quite leisurely, completely unconcerned with how long it takes the story to progress. The thing that Dominik’s screenplay possesses that might appeal to a larger audience than Malick films is the ability to guide the leisurely pace toward tension-filled high points. There are a number of scenes that are as intense as anything you’ll find in a top-notch thriller. In particular, I think that the dinner sequence, when Jesse unexpectedly drops in on the Ford brothers at their sister’s home, to be one of the finest in the film. As Jesse and Charley laugh at Bob for his hero worship as a young boy, the friction builds. Everyone there is terrified of saying the wrong word that will set Jesse off. But after the nonstop prodding from the outlaw, Bob becomes so incensed that he can’t resist the urge to respond. There is also a memorable scene when Jesse is standing on a frozen lake, asking Charley if he ever considered suicide. As he does this, he begins firing rounds from his six-shooter into the ice. With each shot, you see Charley wince in fear that the entire pond of ice is going to collapse beneath them.
The other understandable parallel to Malick is due to the heavy use of narration. This is probably the most criticized element of the entire film. Many are turned off by narration of any kind, but in this instance there are actual specific complaints about the voice-overs that guide the viewer. The fact that some of the narration describes specific actions, in some cases even as they are being performed on-screen, led certain critics to liken it to watching an audio book being read. I couldn’t disagree more, and in fact I think that the narration is fitting. Why do I say this? Because even when it is doing something that could be incredibly annoying, such as describing action as we watch it, the language is overly literary and flowery. What this means is, it sounds like it is being read from a pulp or dime novel about Jesse James that would have been published in that era. I think it corresponds perfectly to the overall tone of the film.
I already mentioned the train robbery, but Roger Deakins deserves praise for more than just this single sequence. Deakins might be the MVP of the entire year in film, as not only is he responsible for the photography here but also in the Coen Brothers’ Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Both of his efforts were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to There Will Be Blood (oddly enough, Deakins is a startling 0-8 at the Oscars). I understand how meaningless such awards ultimately are, but it’s impressive to be nominated twice in the same category in a single year. Had I been the final arbiter, Deakins would have won the honor for The Assassination of Jesse James. I don’t know how else to describe the cinematography except to call it beautifully bleak. The outdoor shots are expansive and picturesque, but always maintain a desolate air about them. The Days of Heaven comparison is apt, except that everything appears to take place in under an overcast sky rather than at the “magic hour.”
Deakins is the consummate pro, someone who is easy to take for granted because you always expect superior work from him. The same thing could even be said about Brad Pitt. While not necessarily considered the most talented actor in Hollywood, he does consistently turn out solid performances. Here, his turn as Jesse James comes off much better than I expected going in. I honestly thought it had disaster written all over it, but he shines as the calculating gunman. Hopefully it doesn’t seem like I’m giving Pitt short shrift, but the most satisfying thing about the film is a pair of revelatory performances. The first is that of the director, Andrew Dominik. I have not seen his debut film, 2000’s Chopper, but by all accounts there was nothing there to indicate that he would come up with something like this in his sophomore effort. It takes confidence to make a film like this, one that is certain to alienate a lot of viewers. He does it assertively and in my opinion never falters. The other is Casey Affleck. Affleck is at times annoying, funny, neurotic, lovable – in short, the perfect Bob Ford. He is a multifaceted person who develops into a most unlikely lead character.
All this time and not even a mention of the unorthodox score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis that is able to get under your skin at the most tense moments. This just goes to show how much there is to explore in this film and how rewarding it can be on repeat viewings. I just hope that Dominik stays active and doesn’t begin releasing movies at a Malick-like pace. Get to work, Andrew!
Other Contenders for 2007: I’ve already listed a number of films from what I consider to be a monstrous year in film. My favorites are mostly in American cinema, but I’ll go ahead and try and list what would be the rest of my Top 10.
2. Zodiac (David Fincher) – My favorite Fincher film
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson) – My favorite PTA film
4. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg) - My favorite Cronenberg film
5. No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers)
6. The Counterfeiters (Stefan Ruzowitsky)
7. Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck)
8. Atonement (Joe Wright)
9. Juno (Jason Reitman)
10. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
There are some obvious omissions, particularly not having seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and also highlighting my lack of familiarity with Pixar in not having seen Ratatouille.