The New Masterpieces #3 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

With a title that seems to turn some off just from its length, Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a movie that, it can be said fairly, isn’t for everyone. With a pace that mirrors the titular length and a narrative that no interest in being a gun-slinging Western, Dominick’s film is an art-piece through and through.

Released to fine, though surely not rave, reviews in late 2007, Assassination was arguably hurt by its timing. Hitting theatres a full year after it was initially supposed to, the picture was lost in a sea of terrific films from that year, with the similarly meditative stories of aging men and their consciences in the dusty West (No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood) garnering the nearly universal acclaim that Assassination couldn’t manage. A different time on the calendar, be it month or year, would not likely have changed things. Dominick’s film is a deliberate one; slightly cold to the touch and moody. General audiences were never going to go gaga for a piece that is far more tome than airplane novel.

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It’s fitting, in a way, how prescient The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford feels. At its heart, the story is that of a man who envisions himself friends with one of the world’s most famous and notorious icons. Confident that his knowledge of various minutiae about the celebrity’s life, from height to sibling status, is all that’s required for closeness. One can’t help but think of the modern internet culture where following a professional basketball player’s Twitter, actor’s Instragram or President’s Facebook is seen as drawing people together, or often literally labeling them as “Friends.” This is not to critique or bash or fandom, but to point out that bonds are made up of more than an encyclopedic, or perhaps Wiki-pedic, insight of a person’s past. Intimacy must be earned via interaction.

In the role of the fan we have Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, a wannabe criminal. Robert longs for people to know his name, claiming that “I honestly believe I’m destined for great things.” More so, Robert wants to reach that level alongside his idol Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Over the course of 150 minutes, Robert meets the man he worshipped, grows to see the legend is just that and, as the name of the film states, assassinates Jesse James. That first and third part are inevitable, but it’s how Dominick, who also wrote the script, plays around with that central conceit that helps gives his movie such dramatic juice.

From the onset, the story is tilted in Jesse’s favor, for despite being a killer himself, he isn’t labeled a coward. A narrator orates the times and trials of Jesse. There are the basics. He tells of Jesse’s necessary town-to-town travels and aliases, and that his kids didn’t even know his own name. Then the apocryphal bits come out, with Jesse’s ability to be a common man getting mentioned, along with a condition that made him have to frequently blink. This last detail is mentioned as we see Pitt’s Jesse, eyes blue as the prairie sky, staring into the distance, unwavering in their stillness. Off the bat, we know this narration is in fact one-sided; nothing more than one of the “nickel books” referenced as a standard source of Robert’s knowledge. Yet, the narrators goes on, detailing how rooms felt warmer in Jesse’s presence and how clocks seemed to slow down. Robert never even had a chance to get a fair shake, let alone be a heroic figure.

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The character of Robert Ford is a stunning one, complicated and mesmerizing. Affleck received an Oscar nomination for the part as a Supporting Actor, though it’s truly his tale and arc upon which Dominic focuses. Initially, there is a sadness felt towards the character. Affleck plays Robert as meek; a somewhat gaunt fellow who appears physically wounded when verbally put down. When he tries to join the James Gang, Jesse’s brother Frank (a terrific Sam Shephard) berates Robert, immediately hesitant of the young man’s abilities, let alone motives. Though Robert gets to be close to Jesse, even briefly living with him, he is never more than a tool for the outlaw. At one moment that might be to simply help him sneak around at night. Elsewhere, it’s as a point of entertainment. In one of Assassination’s finest scenes, Jesse and his crew, including Ford’s brother, comfortably sit and mock Robert’s fascination, Dominick’s camera almost hesitantly shifting closer to Affleck’s deteriorating psyche. His voice cracking and breathing heavy, Robert accepts his role in the group, but it only fuels his turn away from Jesse.

Assisting in this matter is every other element of The Assassination of the Coward Robert Ford. To take nothing away from Dominick, whose mastery of tone pushes this picture to great heights, this is more than an auteur showing his chops. This is a collaborative effort, with all of the players complimenting the others.

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The most obvious is cinematographer Roger Deakins, a living legend. The first glance definitely hints at early Malick and other Deakins works of the era, especially No Country for Old Men. The blackness of it all rings deeper though. This isn’t just a use of candles here or golden hues there. The night in Assassination is a veil that wraps tight around the characters, as if there was no escape into the trenches that lie beyond the moonlight. The only time it’s broken through is early, when a stupendous train heist is held in the midst of the night, with lanterns and a few flickers from the roaring behemoth’s windows lighting those that seek to rob it.

To coincide with these visuals is a beautiful, properly haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Guitars, pianos and other instruments shake and swoon, the sole friend of Robert Ford. The narrator, characters and decades of time are against Robert; each unfeeling of his nature. The music shifts to hint at the turmoil that boils inside Robert, building to a sad, almost disappointed waltz as Robert’s perceived triumph crumbles, before being murdered and forgotten. History views Jesse James as a scoundrel in an almost lovable since. A shift in inches would see him getting picked up by Bill and Ted for a goofy trip to San Dimas. History’s perception of Robert Ford is that of Mark David Chapman; a figure to be forgotten by all those who don’t vilify him.

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