Skip to Content

‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’: The indefinable western

‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’: The indefinable western

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward RobertJesse James

Directed by Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by Andrew Dominik based on the novel by Ron Hansen
2007, USA, UK, Canada

“I’ve been a nobody all my life. I was the baby; I was the one they made promises to that they never kept. And ever since I can recall it, Jesse James has been as big as a tree. I’m prepared for this, Jim. And I’m going to accomplish it. I know I wont get but this one opportunity and you can bet your life I’m not going to spoil it.”

Movies are littered with characters who want nothing but to be great, characters who ache to unforgettable, and who want to be more than footnotes in history. With Andrew Dominik’s 2007 beautiful achievement The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, Dominik and company were able to capture the full spectrum of those characters and usher in a new era in the western.

Set in the final months of Jesse James (Brad Pitt’s) life before he is killed by Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) it’s an awe inspiring, bizarre film. Instead of playing like a film, it plays like a rich, consuming, vibrant and well versed novel. The effect is achieved by a slow burn narrative and haunting voiceover by Hugh Ross. Where most voiceovers feel false or pretentious this one only adds to the effect.

film review

Factor in the brilliant cinematography by Roger Deakens, with it’s foggy, sometimes out of focus camera and shocking bursts of color your left with an aching almost eerie film. Domink manages the rare task of creating a film with a visceral pulse.

The film is aided by brilliant performances by everyone involved, particularly its leads, Pitt and Affleck. When Jesse’s brother Frank (Sam Shepard), tells Bob early on that he doesn’t have “the stock” for their business you know immediately that he’s correct. Bob just isn’t-right. It’s not obvious immediately what it is but his eagerness always rings a little false.

Affleck winds Ford up tighter than a coil the entire film. When he finally pops it’s not what you’d expect. Yes, you get an explosion of violence but it’s brief, instead what we’re left with is a man, not unlike his early hero. He’s haunted by a past he doesn’t really regret but isn’t quiet sure how to feel about it.

He also manages to do the impossible you feel bad for him. None of these people are nice or kind or even relatable but you feel a certain kind of sadness for him. All he wants is to be great and be loved by his hero. The mix of weakness and sheer rage in his eyes is at times, completely understandable.

Affleck plays off of Pitt, who in perhaps the finest performance of his career plays a frightening ball of contradictions. Angry, vicious, terrifying, suspicious, and unstable your uncertain if this cruel man is capable of anything but fear and more bloodshed. But Pitt plays him without pretense. James might be a folk hero but he wasn’t a good man. He was perhaps even one of the worst. When he scowls and says “It’s a wonderful world”, your left cold.

Jesse is also the great pretender which is painfully obvious especially in a thoroughly unnerving scene with the underrated Garret Dillahunt or the brutal, equally disturbing beating of a young boy. Even when he’s with his family he’s haunted, always far off, just out of reach. We’re allowed through the script and Pitt’s performance to see flashes of the man he once was but really he’s just a shell, facing a future he’s trying to get a handle on even though he knows won’t survive.

But what’s really magical about the performance is that even though you know how terrible James is, heck Dominik shows you more than once, you can see why the young, calculating Ford, looking for a hero latches onto James so quickly.

More than anything The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford is about heroes and losers and what happens when they put stock in each other. You get the sense that both Jesse and Bob know their roles immediately. Jesse knows that Bob is going to be the one to cut him down and he does little to stop it, Bob knows that he has no other options. This is his last chance to be the hero.

Because Dominik sets this film up as an examination rather than a shoot-um-up western we’re left with an epic historical western, something that hasn’t been done in a long time and has yet to be duplicated since. It’s far from the norm and it’s easy to see why some viewers complain about its length or the fact that it tends to lean more towards art house rather than conventional western.

But that’s what makes the film so wonderfully unique to its western genre. It’s a slow burn, it takes time, it takes patience but what’s left is an achingly beautiful film, full of achingly sad, complex characters. Viewers might be a little confused about the genre but one things for certain, The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, is a stunning, one of a kind western.

– Tressa Eckermann