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Wednesday, December 5, 2007


The resurgence of the western takes one more step forward with the release of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. After 3:10 To Yuma, you’d think that lightning wouldn’t strike twice for this, the genre that seems to produce the least amount of films. However, this western surpasses James Mangold’s film and is possibly the best film of 2007. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a western that belongs with the greats, and certainly the best example of it’s kind since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is not a biopic of the famous folk-hero Jesse James. In fact, the early part of the film depicts Jesse and his brother Frank’s last train heist. With the brothers for the heist are a gang of men recruited from the hills in Missouri. Among the outlaws are the Ford brothers, Charlie and his younger brother Robert. Robert Ford has spent his life idolising Jesse James through magazines and stories. He sees this robbery as his chance to get closer to his hero.
After the robbery, James’ paranoia leads him to hunt down his former gang. Eventually James catches up with the Ford brothers. They have good reason to fear James. Despite this, they join him in his journey to catch up with his former gang. But as Robert Ford’s attempts to get closer to his hero are met with rejection and laughter, his obsession intensifies. If he cannot become close to James, he figures there must be a way to best him.

It’s impossible to know where to begin when analysing a film like this. There are so many elements that contribute to it’s greatness. Essentially, it’s an examination of the cult of celebrity and the effects it can have, not only on a ‘fan’ but on the celebrity him or herself. It’s fitting that Jesse James, one of the most famous men of his time should be played by Brad Pitt, one of the most famous actors of our time. James, in the film, is a figure who lives an almost mythical existence. In an early scene, Ford and James sit and share cigars. Ford is literally gushing over the stories of his hero, who turns to Ford and tells him they’re all lies. Instantly, you see Ford’s embarrassment at his attempt to get closer to his hero. Even way back when, stories of celebrity are blown out of proportion.

Yet it’s this celebrity status that makes Jesse James a melancholic and paranoid character. Brad Pitt, who I’ve enjoyed in maybe a handful of roles delivers a career-best performance as the outlaw. James is a quiet, contemplative character, yet underneath his outward control of every situation lies a man who is incredibly dangerous. The slightest provocation turns James from a quiet man into a cold-blooded murderer. When the Ford brothers are exposed to this side of James, they begin to realise how close they are to death. But despite this, James seems to be in a perpetual state of embracing death. It’s almost as if he expects it at any moment. Pitt conveys every side of James character so convincingly that it would be very surprising if his performance is overlooked come awards time.

Playing against Pitt is Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. It’s his performance that is central to the film, and he is outstanding as Ford. His character is in awe of James. He’s a young man who’s life has been shaped around the exploits of Jesse James. When his time comes to meet his hero, he’s does everything he can to endear himself to the outlaw. Yet his attempts are rejected outright. In fact, he’s laughed at by everyone from his own brother to James himself. And with each rejection, Ford descends deeper and deeper into resentment. After he kills James, in what is a cowardly manner, Ford builds a career riding on this one incident. Yet he finds that the celebrity he has garnered brings him nothing but misery. Instead of being a hero who brought down Jesse James, Ford is regarded as a coward, and finds himself as paranoid as his hero once was. It’s a brilliant contrasting performance to Pitt’s James. One of the film’s highlights is a scene involving Ford comparing his life to that of James. His adoration for his hero is met with ridicule bordering on contempt, and watching the two actors face each other is fascinating.

The rest of the cast, including Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Zooey Deschanel and Mary-Louise Parker all deliver brilliant performances. Yet in the face of the two central characters, these performances play second fiddle.

Aside from the brilliant cast, the other highlight of The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is the direction and cinematography. This film is probably the most beautiful film of the year. Shot by Coen brothers collaborator, Roger Deakins, the film is incredibly reminiscent of the films of Terrence Malick, in particular Days Of Heaven. The west has rarely looked as beautiful and mythical. Andrew Dominik’s direction is sublime. The tone of the film is quiet and melancholic, like the title character. Dominik’s previous film, the brilliant Chopper, also dealt with a character who was almost a folk hero. Another outlaw who has achieved almost mythical status. There are some outstanding scenes, including a brilliantly shot train robbery. But it’s the character interaction that is in focus here. It’s a long film, running two hours and forty minutes in length. Yet, it’s not a minute too long or a minute too short and is edited perfectly.

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is possibly film of the year. I’d previously thought Eastern Promises would be the film that would emerge as the film of 2007. But after seeing this film, it’s a very difficult choice. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford might have the edge. It’s just a stunning looking film with two incredible performances. What’s definite about it, however, is that it is absolutely memorable in every way, and that's the key to a brilliant film.


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