The Assassination of Jesse James …

by the Coward Robert Ford

Underrated Films

The self-important title of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford tells you everything you need to know about the film in question, including its entire plot, tone and buttock-killing length. It is by turns slow, incoherent, ponderous, predictable and thunderously dull, and was aptly described in the Hollywood Reporter as being “smothered in pointlessly long takes, grim Western landscapes and mumbled, heavily accented dialogue.” In short, it’s one of the best films of the decade.

This is only the second film directed by Andrew Dominik, following the ultra violent and stylish Chopper, yet he handles it with the mastery and patience of David Lean or Terrence Malick. Scenes go on just as long as they have to, as he gradually paints a portrait of America’s first true celebrity alongside his obsessive fan and eventual assassin. As Jesse James, Brad Pitt is the best he’s been since Fight Club, as he carefully reveals a man trapped by his own fame and persona whose mind is rapidly disintegrating. Alongside him is the serpentine Casey Affleck, portraying an unctuous, beady-eyed Robert Ford. Together, the two men develop an unnatural friendship born out of circumstance, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that it doesn’t end well.

Yet for Dominik, plot is entirely secondary. Instead, he provides surprisingly modern ruminations on the destructive construct of celebrity and examines the nature of obsession. And while Affleck, Pitt and the surrounding cast are impressive, the real star of the film is the cinematography of Roger Deakins. In Jesse James, Deakins is at his best, employing natural lighting, entirely new lens combinations and haunting time-lapse photography to incredible effect. Early on, Deakins shoots a night-time train robbery with utter confidence and tenderness, embracing the darkness and smoke. Indeed, so stunning is this ten minute scene that it threatens to derail the rest of the film, though Dominik’s consummate skill ensures that this never happens.

Upon its heavily delayed release in 2007, the film was almost entirely drowned out by No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. It was a commercial failure, and resultantly Andrew Dominik has been unable to find funding for another film since. Three years on and Jesse James remains unfairly ignored, yet it is increasingly clear that he has created a supremely confident masterpiece.

Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 01/05/2010.

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