Where Forgotten Films Dwell

Welcome to this site! It exists for one reason: to preserve the memory of films that have been forgotten about or under-appreciated throughout the ages. Take a seat, read an entry, leave a comment. You might discover your new favorite movie!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Directed by Andrew Dominik
2007
The United States of America



Is there any one figure from the American West who inspires so much awe and mystery as the legendary Jesse James? Bank robbery, train robbery, stagecoach robbery, murder…all of these things have been accredited to Jesse James’ crime spree in the West after his involvement in the American Civil War. He left behind him a legacy that endures to this day as one of the most romantic figures in American mythology. Some call him a modern day Robin Hood…even though there was no evidence of Jesse or his gang ever giving to the poor. Some call him a bloodthirsty criminal and outlaw…although some argue that he acted as an ex-Confederate insurgent drowning in the consolidation of Lincoln’s new Union. But whatever he truly was does not matter. Jesse James will live on as one of the most enduring symbols of the Wild West for as long as tales of cowboys and cattle drives survive.


The historical Jesse James

Probably because of his larger-than-life status, few films have ever tried to truly explore the man behind the legend. Filmmakers have always been content to depict Jesse as a kind of mythic figure. Many seem to even forget that he was wanted for over a dozen murders. Good or bad, Jesse James was always a hero.

At least until director Andrew Dominik got a hold of him. In 2007 Dominik released what may not only be one of the best examinations of Jesse James ever committed to film, but also one of the best character studies as well. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s book by the same title, Dominik holds Jesse James down under a microscope and scrutinizes every fine detail about who he was. The film has a title as wild as its subject: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Notice how the title doesn’t focus on Jesse James, but instead on the man who would go on to become his killer, Robert Ford. That is because the film isn’t told from Jesse James’ perspective, but by Ford. We first meet him outside of Jesse’s camp out in the woods where they are preparing for one last train robbery before they break up. Ford, who grew up idolizing Jesse, begs his brother Frank James to be allowed to participate. Eventually (and after much protest) Ford is accepted into the gang and strikes up a delicate relationship with Jesse. Ford lives to please Jesse, and Jesse seems content to receive such devotion and admiration. But buried inside of Jesse is a cruel form of resentment that bubbles its way out and passive aggressively lashes out at Ford. In time, the two become locked in a love/hate state of symbiosis. They both need each other. Ford needs Jesse’s approval and Jesse…well, it’s hard to really figure out why he needs Ford. But the need is there and ever present. That is what makes Ford’s eventual betrayal so powerful.

We watch their relationship develop as they plummet towards that fateful day of betrayal where Ford, while living in Jesse’s house with his family, kills him in order to collect the bounty on his head. In a sense, Ford acts as the audience’s surrogate. At first, we, as the audience, are fascinated by Jesse. But then, as we watch him crumble into the paranoid wreck that defined his last years on earth, we feel pity…and then an insidious resentment. When Ford at long last pulls the trigger and ends Jesse’s life, we feel a sigh of relief.

Once the deed is done, the legend of Jesse James explodes. Jesse’s cadaver is placed on display and Ford and Charley start a theater show in Manhattan where they re-create the assassination. Charley slowly succumbs to tuberculosis and guilt and eventually kills himself. Soon, Ford goes from being a hero to a pariah. He receives death threats, is called a coward, and is driven to alcoholism. It seems strange that so many people would spring to the defense of one of the greatest criminals in the history of the West. But the legend has taken hold. People don’t harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the man. Instead, they harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the legend. In a poignant scene in a bar, Ford listens to a musician sing a song glorifying Jesse James, calling him a good, kind man, and then vilifying the cowardly snake who mercilessly shot him. He stands and announces that he is Robert Ford. He collapses, and the bar falls quiet in silent judgment. The legend stands.

In fact, the entire focus of the film is fixated on the nature of legends and the mythology that surrounds certain people. Dominik uses a narrator to frame the entire film as a kind of dramatic history lesson, giving weight to every action of the characters. The cinematography, done by long-term Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, makes use of brown and black color palettes enhanced through a bleach bypass, making the entire film seem older and the color of flaxen wheat. Deakins also used wide-angle lenses mounted onto the front several cameras to create a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. In doing so, Deakins made the entire film feel like a series of ancient photographs come to life. Time-lapse sequences break up the action, reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots,” and add a sense of uneasiness to the film. Occasionally the film will suddenly convert to black-and-white mid-shot, as if Dominik is teasing us and reminding us that we are watching a movie.



And last but not least, the film stars two of the greatest performances of the decade in the form of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Watching the film, I was struck by how similar both performances were in power and scope to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. They don’t so much play their characters as they immerse themselves in them. Pitt may have given the performance of his career as the narcissistic, paranoid James. The performance is a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance (both of which Pitt is not usually known for) as he always gives a sinister impression that he knows more about the plot and his fellow characters than even the director did. When he asks questions, it feels like he already knows the answer and is just going through the motions for appearance’s sake.



And then there is Affleck. I can’t understand why his brother, Ben Affleck, is so much more famous than him. Casey is the superior actor in every single sense of the word. In this film, he plays an emotional wreck, constantly doubting himself and hiding behind nervous ticks. One wonders if Affleck utilized the method acting techniques made famous by Brando and De Niro. His performance is also magnificently physical. A twitch of the hands, a spasm of facial muscles, and an uncontrolled blink carry more weight and power than even his best lines. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but would go on to lose to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. While Bardem’s win is not unjustified, it still feels inappropriate as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would go home at the end of the night empty-handed.



And this begs the question, why is this film so obscure if it is anywhere near as good as I have described it? Possibly because the film had the misfortune of being released the same year as two other Western themed movies by much more prominent directors (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men). Perhaps many were turned off by its two and a half hour running time. But there is a strange part of me that wonders if maybe people didn’t want to see it because they didn’t want to take part in the defamation of Jesse James’ legend. But who am I kidding? Poor distribution and inferior advertising probably killed this film in the box office. But recently I have noticed a strange trend among my fellow movie lovers: it is slowly gaining popularity and renown. As well it should be. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the great modern Westerns. It is a story of desire, selfishness, sin, and regret. It isn’t so much of a movie as it is a miracle.


42 comments:

  1. You have really conveyed the feel of the film. I would love to see it but am unlikely too, due to overcrowding. I am sure it is an unusual movie (as the theme of your site indicates)on a fascinating theme--the man behind the legend of an outstanding crook!!

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  2. It really isn't that unusual...

    It's just...good.

    I'm looking forward to your return to your blog!

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  3. Certainly smells like a fine film!

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  4. Very impressive review,

    I thought this film was very well made and well acted by the whole cast, but I really didn't enjoy it as much as you seem to have, I thought the pacing was too slow and I thought Jesse James was a rather uninteresting character,
    I suppose I was expecting something different, I still enjoyed watching it though, but I wouldn't watch it again any time soon...

    I would say that I enjoyed the final scenes leading up to the death of Jesse James and the scenes following them showing the fate of Ford the most of the whole film, they were very well done and quite thought provoking.

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  5. Well, the film wasn't supposed to focus on Jesse. It was ABOUT Robert Ford. Jesse needed to exist in order to provoke character development.

    The entire film was more relaxed and methodological. Believe it or not, I personally felt like it was a Western directed by a European director. It had a lot more insight into character development and thematic evolution than most Westerns that I have seen.

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  6. Yeah, I see what you mean, I think I was expecting something very different, maybe some kind of biographical film dealing with Jesse James life...
    I did end up enjoying the film though, it just wasn't at all what I expected.

    I can see why it might appear rather European, but I think only a American film could of dealt with the subject matter adequately, because although Jesse James is a "hero" in the US, I don't think he's very well known over in Europe unless it's through American mediums...

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  7. True enough...

    Or maybe it WOULD have been better with a European director who only knew about Jesse James through legends and hearsay....

    It might have made him seem more mythic.

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  8. Personally I don't think it would have been better if the character was more mythical, I mean he was a criminal after all and I think he should be presented as such without unnecessary glorification.
    Maybe for more inspirational US hero's that might be more interesting...

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  9. Ah yes...but then again...is there such thing as a perfect hero?

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  10. Probably not, but there are surely many who accomplished more than Jesse James...

    Come to think of it, The Duke of Wellington is as close as can be got to a perfect hero in my opinion, but I am a great admirer of him so maybe not everyone would share that view... (I'm still waiting for a great film to be made about him)

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  11. I know what you mean. I personally would love to see a quality biopic of Winston Churchill.

    Of course...I also love conflicted historical figures.

    One of my dream projects is a sweeping biography of Benedict Arnold. Now THAT was a fascinating man.

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  12. I do think there should be more biopics made, especially about historical figures. I've always been interested in history but my preferred way of learning about a period was too read about the great men and women who inhabited it. I'm often disappointed by how few great biopics there are.

    We really need more films like Gandhi and Malcolm X...

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  13. "The Gathering Storm" and "Into the Storm" are very good biopics about Churchill, specially the first. The subject is treated lovingly but irreverently and you get the human side one can identify with. I've reviewed both on my blog. There was a good one about MLK. "Frost Nixon" was also very good,I felt. Of course, the one about Zola you recommended was exceptional."Raging Bull", "Last temptation of Christ" and Passolini's "Gospel according to Matthew" are all exceptional.

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  14. @Jack L

    I would dream to see a really good one about Napoleon, who really dwarfs his English counterparts, history notwithstanding. I could not locate the silent film you reviewed and had to be content with the lengthy but uninspired PBS film.

    No one has made a good one about Beethoven, though Mozart was well done in "Amadeus".

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  15. @Rana

    Actually....

    The entire silent film about Napoleon is on youtube.

    Here's the link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pkreNdI60M

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  16. @Rana

    Also...one of the greatest tragedies in cinematic history (in my humble opinion) was the untimely death of Stanley Kubrick. Not many people know this, but after he finished "Eyes Wide Shut" he was going to do a biopic on Napoleon!

    He had been planning it for years, having read something like 3,000 books on Napoleon and filling out numerous journals with costume info, storyboards, and other preparations.

    Just imagine what could have been....I mean, "Barry Lyndon" is easily my favorite Kubrick film, and that is a pretty good indicator that Kubrick was more than capable of doing a period film about Napoleon.

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  17. @Nathanael
    I had heard that from the Kubrick: A Life In Pictures... That Napoleon film would have been simply one of the best films ever made in my opinion. The subject was a genius and the maker of the film was a genius, what could have gone wrong?

    If I remember well, the reason it wasn't made is because the film called "Waterloo" (pretty good film) came out and completely bombed at the bow office just before Stanley started filming, so all the producers withdrew their money from his film because of the failure of a previous one , disgusting.

    and Barry Lyndon is my favourite Kubrick film as well!! it's such an overlooked masterpiece...

    @Rana
    Wasn't there a Beethoven film made starring Gary Oldman?

    I also think that documentaries can do great jobs with biographical subjects, one of my favourite is When We Were Kings, Grizzly Man is very insightful as well, and I recently watched Death For Five Voices about the composer Gesualdo, it was brilliant.

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  18. Well, that puts the Youtube Napoleon and Barry Lyndon on my forthcoming agenda. The two films about Beethoven I have seen were not very inspiring. I wonder what Spielberg's Lincoln will be like.

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  19. @Jack L

    Wasn't "Death For Five Voices" by Herzog?

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  20. @Rana

    If you want to watch Barry Lyndon, don't watch it on youtube. Get the BEST video system you can find and watch it in high definition. It will AMAZE you.

    Also, I am thoroughly looking forward to Spielberg's Lincoln film. Say what you want about his recent work, the man knows how to do serious drama. "Schindler's List," "The Color Purple," "Amistad," and "Munich" were all some of his best work. Plus, Liam Neeson has been cast as Lincoln. I have yet to see Neeson put in a bad performance.

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  21. yeah, Death For Five Voices, is an hour long documentary by Herzog, from around 1995 I think...
    It's very well made and informative, but hardly a masterpiece.

    Also didn't Liam Neeson drop out of Lincoln recently, I believe D.D. Lewis is replacing him and too be honest I couldn't imagine a better choice...

    Oh and Rana, Barry Lyndon is probably one of the most exquisitely shot films ever made so the highest quality is recommended, I'm sure you'll love it!

    I just wanted to say to you guys that I'm really glad I came across your blogs, there is nothing I love better than having intelligent discussion about film and I have no friends who share this interest where I live, so you're really a great help and you've inspired me to continue expanding my film knowledge as much as possible. I just wanted to thank you guys :)

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  22. ...............................
    ...............................
    ...............................

    Sorry....I was just drooling over the idea of Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln...

    Anyhow, that's the best compliment that somebody can give me. I LOVE film. That's why I started this blog! I wanted to share my love of film with other people!

    So, I am VERY glad that you like it. Please! Read my other reviews. I have over 90 of them archived on this site. They will give you a very fascinating overview of world cinema. Rana's site does the same, as well. Leave comments on them and tell me what you think!

    I am so glad that you found this blog, too. I love talking about film with people who know their stuff!

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  23. I didn't love the movie quite as much as you did, mostly because of its pacing. I think it needed about twenty minutes cut out of the middle.

    I agree with you about the performances, though. They're terrific. Casey Affleck rightly earned an Oscar nod for it, but in the wrong category. I think he's certainly a lead actor in the film, but because Brad Pitt is the bigger star and plays the more iconic character, Affleck was shuffled on down to the supporting race. (Incidentally, the same thing is happing with this year's major Western contender "True Grit," where Hailee Steinfeld plays the lead role but will likely be nominated as a supporting actress.)

    Affleck, who is indeed a much better actor than his older brother Ben, gives another good dark, psychologically challenging performance as a different kind of killer in last year's "The Killer Inside Me," which isn't as good a film but is worth seeing for Affleck's work.

    But I digress. For me, the film's greatest achievement is Roger Deakins's cinematography. This just might be the most exquisitely shot film of the last ten years, and I appreciate the insight you give into Deakins's technique.

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  24. Aww...well shucks...

    It was info anyone can find with a quick wikipedia search...but I appreciate it.

    But as to the quality of the film...slow doesn't necessarily mean bad.

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  25. Slow doesn't necessarily mean bad (I just gave a rave to Sofia Coppola's comparatively glacial "Somewhere" after all), but in this case I do think it was a hindrance. Some tightening up of the story, and I'd be calling it a masterpiece too. As it stands it's a remarkably artful, accomplished film with, to me, a slightly saggy middle.

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  26. OK, I look forward to reading your reviews,
    and by the way, while we're on the subject of biopics, have you seen Carlos: The Day Of The Jackal?? I've heard great things about it and will be watching it soon, it seems rather similar to the Mesrine films, which I loved and would highly recommend...

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  27. @danielmontomery

    Fair enough, fair enough.

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  28. @Jack L.

    Isn't that film about 5 hours long? I may get around to it someday, but I'm a bit too busy to commit to a film of that length right now...

    It's a bit intimidating...

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  29. There's a theatrical version of 1h 40 which I'm watching right now, it's pretty good but I think I'm going to watch the complete 5h long version as well.

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  30. Oh...well...I am a strong supporter of watching a film in the manner that the director originally intended.

    Therefore, if the definitive cut is 5 hours long, I intend to watch it. But it's okay. I've sat through long movies before.

    My longest was the 7 1/2 hour restored cut of "Greed." And THAT was a silent film as well.

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  31. I located Napoleon 1927 on YouTube but find the length intimidating for a silent film. I'm searching for the right edition of Barry Lyndon because YouTube is not so comfortable for films, unless they are short, or unless one is desperate. It is great fun to talk films and this is a cozy corner of the internet!

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  32. Why thank you! I try to make my blog as comfortable as possible.

    Yeah...I probably should have mentioned that "Napoleon" is several hours long...if it helps you can watch just sections of it over a period of days...

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  33. brab pitt did a great job in this film
    great story thanks for the real picture

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  34. Why, thank you!

    Thank you for your kind words and for reading!

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  35. This..is the best movie EVER MADE....PERIOD

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  36. Sorry to add so untimely but I just came to your blog in research of Black Sun having just watched The Warped Ones and thought it to be the greatest punk rock movie to date.

    As for Jesse... I think the use of Brad Pitt was critical to this film. I agree Casey Affleck was genius but by using Pitt and his already larger than life renown added a layer of depth without the need for any exposition on the film makers part. We already know that Pitt/Jesse is mythological in the public's eye, and we understand the burden that weighs down people with such an immense human profile, no other actor of our day could have come to this role so prepared to step into this iconic character.
    The lack of public acceptance I believe had to do with the languid pacing, it doesn't play for the short attention span movie goer - oh for those of us who get off on these types of scenarios, sublime satisfaction.

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