The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007).

At the showing of the body.

Zooey Deschanel.

Andrew Dominik's only directing credit prior to Assassination is 2000's excellent Chopper with Eric Bana, another outlaw story. Neither film either glorifies or condemns its characters, though it would not be entirely accurate to say that it doesn't romanticize them--and a good thing too, because a western that is completely without romanticization has nothing to offer beyond trite "debunking" gestures. But more to the point, can you name a single western that truly does this in the first place? Could there be anything more "romantic" than The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, or Unforgiven? Altman said he hated westerns, and one can see how films like McCabe were attempts to destroy the genre, but in the end the actors and locations overcome such attempts.

One reason Assassination works so beautifully is that it leaves it consistently up to the viewer to gauge the ironic or nonironic valences of the title. The relationship between Jesse James and Robert Ford never resolves into either outright antipathy or deep friendship: they dance around each other with multiple, sometimes conflicting attitudes for the duration of their acquaintance. When the inevitable occurs, it cannot be classified simply as a betrayal, but it's not quite honorable either. Affleck's measured portrayal of Ford forces you to revise your estimation of him at every turn, but without resorting to facile tropes of ethical redemption or transcendence. Pitt's nervous, magnetic Jesse seems always on the verge of coming into focus as a person, but finally remains a cipher on the order of Jay Gatsby: he exists even to himself only as a set of fragile loyalties and unmanageable threats. Both actors are mesmerizing.

Also mesmerizing is the fluid, languorous camerawork, which indulges in picturesque tableaus so sparingly that it's not only forgiveable, but disruptive of a subtlety that otherwise might threaten to turn into blandness. My only regret is that Zooey Deschanel was not given at least as much screen time as Barbara Britton had with the equivalent character in Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (which I recommend watching in a double feature with Dominik's film).


Anonymous said...

Just watched this one last night. Well put.

Alex said...

I hate to be the naysayer, but this movie honestly bored the hell out of me. It just kept going and going long after I'd lost interest in what happened to any of the characters EXCEPT Dick Little, he was a great character. All the relationships were so ambiguous and so few interesting things happened, i thought i was going to pass out. It WAS beautiful though, but it was an hour too long.

kyle said...

what absolutely drove me crazy in this movie was the narration, which was unnecessary, constant, and undermined the actors at every turn. i finally watched this last weekend, and would now like to wedge it in right in the middle of my top ten.