TIFF Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
by Alex Billington
September 29, 2007
I'll be honest: I'm not a lifelong fan of Westerns. I used to consider them too long and boring, and I hated the whole cowboy culture they represented. After first hearing about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I knew I needed to see it but I wasn't really sure why. After this 2 hour, 40 minute spectacle was over, I had gained a new appreciation for Westerns. As a film buff who appreciates great cinema, exquisite acting, and visually profound theatrical experiences, I highly recommend The Assassination of Jesse James.
The film begins with the legendary outlaw Jesse James's (Brad Pitt) and his brother Frank James's (Sam Shepard) last train robbery, where a gang of inexperienced outlaws including brothers Robert (Casey Affleck) and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) join the Jameses in their final escapade. The story primarily follows the young and naive Robert Ford as he tries to join the James gang and travel alongside his idol Jesse James. By this time, Jesse had split from his brothers and had decided to live a simpler life with his wife and kids while still evading the authorities. As time goes by, Robert becomes further invested with Jesse and his friends and family and becomes resentful of Jesse, eventually leading to his cowardice and Jesse's murder.
There is so much to the story in The Assassination of Jesse James's lengthy run time that there's no way to even begin to explain it. This is just one part of what makes it such a brilliant film - you get to explore the story, the characters, and the locations in great depth. While others may refer to it as a lengthy expose that could've been easily shortened, I enjoyed being brought into the world of Jesse James and Robert Ford and being shown the full story of the relationship between the two. If you can handle 2 hours and 40 minutes then you'll easily be able to understand why it's such a fulfilling film.
On top of the story, director Andrew Dominik creates one of the most visually profound films of this entire year. Like Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain last year, The Assassination of Jesse James has beautiful cinematography and scenery. Although the budget limited scenes set in busy towns, what Dominik put in is gorgeous. The rumors are true: there are brief scenes where only the clouds float by for a few seconds, but these moments are not problematic. They're temporary relief to savor the beauty of the moment before continuing further into the immense story.
The Assassination of Jesse James wasn't created as a shoot ’em up Western with non-stop action; it's a drama, with more talking than anything else. For me it was a new style of Western that allowed me to learn to appreciate what sets the genre apart from others. It's the kind of film where breathtaking storytelling is accompanied by an idyllic score and an atmosphere built on characters rather than action. Finally I had been able to understand the subtleties of the Western genre: it's the characters and their interaction that makes so many great Western films as amazing as they are.
Ever since Fight Club I've appreciated Brad Pitt's acting. I used to think he was just a glossy eye-candy actor, but The Assassination of Jesse James yet again proves that he is capable of the most demanding roles. His portrayal of the infamous Jesse James is so meticulously perfect that I wouldn't be surprised if he gets an Oscar or at least a Golden Globe. Following him is a line-up of incredibly talented actors that rivals any other ensemble in the past decade: Casey Affleck as the coward Robert Ford, the always entertaining Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil, and Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite; each delivers their own incredibly worthy performance.
I can't praise The Assassination of Jesse James enough. Even above 3:10 to Yuma, the other big Western this year, I enjoyed the lengthy but serene storytelling in Jesse James more. The Western is one of the few genres that can tell as rich of a story as this because of the intricate characters immersed within the old-time setting. Not only have I come to appreciate Westerns through The Assassination of Jesse James, but I've found one of my favorite films of the year.