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Movies > Reviews > The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

A Sgt Pembry Review..............................................Monday, October 19, 2009
The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2008)

Thank god for the test audience. If not for them we may never have seen just how brilliant a piece of cinema The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford really is - well, not for another 15 years anyway when Andrew Dominik would have released his 'Director's Cut'.

The New Zealander knows what he is doing when it comes to making movies. Sure, he's only made two, but how good are they? Chopper (2000), with a performance by Eric Bana to die for, and then The Assassination (2007).


And Dominik knew what he was doing when he decided on going the non-Hollywood approach to making a modern-day Western. There's nothing gung ho about The Assassination. The action is subtle. Words, even looks from the main characters do most of the damage here.

And it is some of the most gripping cinema seen in recent times.

Dominik is quoted as saying he wanted "a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy". He got it in the end, but not after high-profile producers, one Ridley Scott, and one Brad Pitt, were up to their armpits in film reels in the editing room.

The studio apparently didn't like where Dominik was going with this epic, so ordered several recuts.

Test audiences fortunately stuck to their guns and backed Dominik's vision - which turned out to be haunting in every sense.

Filming for the picture took place late December 2005, but it would be at least another two years before the general public would see it, or had the chance to see it. Though it had a budget of $30 million, it made just under $4 million at the box office.

I didn't sit through its almost three-hour until early 2009, but I can tell you it was well worth the wait.

It doesn't take a historian to figure out what happens to the famous outlaw of Missouri - he is assassinated by a coward named Robert Ford.

But Dominck ensures the film has a constant sense of impending doom that leaves you glued to the screen, building towards the inevitable well-documented climax involving James noticing how dusty the painting of a horse above his mantelpiece is, going over to clean it, and then being shot in the back of the head by the 20-year-old who had idolized his larger-than-life adventures as a robber.

Adapted from the book of the same name from 1983 by author Robert Hansen, the film depicts James' last few months alive, focusing on his strange relationship with sycophant Ford, played amazingly well by Casey Affleck.

Both are tormented souls, James succumbing to the paranoia of finally being caught by the relentless authorities after a decade of theft with his older brother Frank and their gang, and Ford who turns his unhealthy obsession of James into an unhealthy obsession to become just as famous, make his own name, by any means necessary, in the end.

After being subjected to endless taunts and ridicule by his hero and gang leader, 'Bob', the runt of the Ford family, eventually retaliates, dealing with Kansas City police commissioner Henry Craig (Michael Parks) and Sheriff James Timberlake (Ted Levine), and finally taking out James.

Epitomizing the beautiful simplicity of the film, there are no final battle scenes, with James almost resigned to his time being over, setting down his gun holster after breakfast and deciding to undertake a bit of housecleaning that proves fatal.

The performances here are top notch with the aforementioned Affleck showing someone in his family can actually act, and act well as the shy, awkward, but mostly cringe-worthy Ford.

Word has it Shia Labouf was originally up for the part, but was considered too young. Another thank-you Lord. Affleck went on to be nominated for a 2008 Best Supporting Actor nomination and rightfully so. He plays it so well.

Pitt puts in one of the best efforts of his career, adding a dash of serial killer Early from Kalifornia for his role as James, while Sam Rockwell never lets the side down no matter what film he is in, this time as Ford's older brother and fellow James gangmember Charley.

Jeremy Renner as James' cousin Wood Hite, who meets with a rather unfortunate and ass-freezing ending, and Paul Schneider as rute-rat Dick Liddil, are also worthy of mention. Expect bigger things from these two actors in the future.

Roger Deakins and Nick Cave can lay claim to being the real stars of the movie however.

Deakins would have to be one of the best in the business when it comes to cinematography. A regular collaborator with the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men, Fargo), Deakins was also behind the camera for The Shawshank Redemption and A Beautiful Mind. In 'The Assassination' he makes a blade of grass seem interesting.

The master received the film's second Academy Award nomination for Achievement in Cinematography.

Last but by no means least is Aussie alternative rock legend Cave, whose at times haunting score with Warren Ellis tops things off superbly, especially when working hand-in-hand with Deakins' images.

I don't buy many movie soundtracks, but Jesse James' is on my shopping list. It's simply amazing. And again subtle.

So, while the film's tagline goes 'Beyond the myth lies America's greatest betrayal', beyond the myth that Jesse James is a long, drawn-out bore lies one of America's great historical films of modern times.

Footnote: Dominik is currently working on his third feature film, Cities of the Plain, but, true to form don't expect it to hit theatres for some time, until about 2012. Expect it to be good though. Damn good. For Dominik it's not the quantity, it’s definitely the quality.


Who said it was a bore? It is so powerful it will bore deep into your memory and stay there forever.


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