Cast: Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), Paul Schneider (Dick Liddel), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Garret Dillahunt (Edward Miller), Alison Elliott (Martha Bolton), Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James), James Carville (Governor Thomas T. Crittenden), Zooey Deschanel (Dorothy Evans) & Hugh Ross (Narrator)
Director Andrew Dominik has a thing for criminals. In Chopper (2000) he introduced audiences to Australian armed robber Mark "Chopper" Read, essentially putting its star Eric Bana on the road to Hollywood stardom. Seven years later, Dominik turns his attention to a more renowned villain of American history -- the outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) -- in a film that, along with 3:10 To Yuma, marked a resurgence of the Western last year...
The title is enough to tell you we're headed for a downbeat end. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) is an insecure man, considered a coward by his friends and family, who still harbours a childhood obsession with Jesse James. Indeed, he still has a stash of Jesse James comic-books hidden in a shoebox under his bed. Now approaching his twenties, Robert's dreams come true when he finds his idol in Missouri and joins his gang to rob a train.
There begins a shaky relationship between Jesse, Robert, and the various members of his gang -- which includes Robert's older brother Charley (the excellent Sam Rockwell). Once Jesse has turned his back on crime, he finds he can't rest easy -- fearing those closest to him will betray him. His paranoia is well founded, as the Ford brothers are soon offered the chance to assassinate Jesse James...
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (henceforth Assassination) is a superb study of obsession and celebrity culture, told in hypnotic languor by Andrew Dominik using the wonderful cinematography of Roger Deakins. The cast are superb -- from Pitt's quiet, understated malice, to the younger Affleck's beguiling study of a man whose hero worship takes a step into the macabre. There are echoes of John Lennon's killer Mark Chapman in Ford, too; likewise a nobody who became a "somebody" by killing a celebrity.
As I've mentioned before, Westerns are a genre I've long had issues with. I was never interested in playing cowboys and Indians as a child, while that period in US history doesn't hold much fascination for me. That said, this is the second Western after 3:10 To Yuma that I've really enjoyed. Maybe it's because I'm nearly 30 and better able to appreciate them, or perhaps filmmakers are just becoming more adept at avoiding the genre's clichés? Both Assassination and Yuma focus on character and find ways to breathe new life into old conventions. There's a train robbery in Assassination, but it's a world away from the cowboys chasing carriages on horseback running through your head.
I also suspected Assassination would be tiresome, as it's so obviously marching (in 160 minutes) towards a death signposted in the title -- but I was proven wrong. It's not so much about what happens in the end -- but why, how, when, and its repercussions. Even if you're knowledgeable about Jesse James from the history books, I'm sure it will still draw you in with the excellent performances. I was also intrigued when Assassination continued the story after Jesse's murder, to focus on the fascinating fallout for young Robert Ford. It certainly proves to be a cautionary tale of some clout.
It does take nearly 3 hours to tell a story achievable in 2, but it never drags thanks to the mesmerising performances and beautiful scenery. Pitt plays Jesse as a quiet, conflicted man, sitting alone cutting heads off snakes and eyeing everyone with suspicion. Affleck is a revelation as the gawky, immature Ford, shouldering most of the film and giving a textured, arresting performance.
It's an artful piece of work from Dominik, too -- filmed in soft focus, brimming with atmosphere and tension, with occasional pressure valve releases. It might not be to everyone's taste -- as it's essentially an extended character study, lacking the crowd-pleasing swagger of something like 3:10 To Yuma -- but as it’s a true story, you can't really complain.
Overall, this is a thoughtful study of childhood obsession, and where that can lead if you come to resent your heroes as you enter adulthood. Lyrical, haunting, superbly acted and masterfully shot, Assassination is a fine piece of work from all concerned.
Budget: $30 million