With its overly thorough title, runtime of 160 minutes, and slow pace, it’s not surprising (though it is definitely infuriating) that 2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford did not receive the studio backing or box office success that it deserved. Luckily, the film has gained a strong legion of fans, and many people have found the film through good old-fashioned word of mouth. Casey Affleck’s Oscar nomination for the film has probably also helped the film gain the notoriety that it deserves.
In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James, the charismatic bandit who robs trains while also raising a family. Casey Affleck is Robert “Bob” Ford, a young man who idolized Jesse as a child, and forces his way into Jesse’s ragtag group of outlaws. Jesse is fascinated by Bob, but never seems to truly trust or accept him. Jesse’s group slowly begins to turn on each other, and as the paranoia sets in, Bob and his brother make a plot to bring Jesse down. (Spoiler: they succeed.) It’s a seemingly simple story drawn out, but without the long set up to the inevitable assassination, there would not be the same kind of tension, and the audience would not have as clear of an idea about why things played out like they did. I found that the film rarely dragged, and every scene in the movie worked to add layers to this slowly twisting story.
One might expect a film about Jesse James to be action-packed and exciting, but this truly is a character study of two troubled, fascinating men squaring off in a mental battle. Both Bob and Jesse are always trying to think two steps ahead of the other at all times. That being said, the film is punctuated with a few violent outbursts, and they really work to underscore the desperation and volatility of James and Ford’s lives, rather that desensitize the audience with endless killings.
The ensemble cast is great, and even the small roles are played by reliable actors, such as Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider. As for the stars, Brad Pitt is also quite good as the infamous Jesse James. James’ natural charisma and proto-celebrity status doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch for Pitt, but it’s the other side of Jesse that Pitt is unexpectedly good at. More than once, Jesse lets out a twisted, malicious laugh at someone else’s expense (usually Bob’s). Pitt’s Jesse cackles so desperately that every other character on screen joins in out of sheer fear.
But the real revelation here is Casey Affleck. Robert Ford is a sulky dweeb, yet thanks largely to Affleck’s performance, we sympathize with him throughout the entire movie. Affleck seems to embody the conflict that Robert Ford felt perfectly. Affleck is especially good in the last half hour of the film, where Ford has to come to terms with what he’s done. Even after killing a murderer, Ford is still shunned by the public. The act that he thought would bring him glory, and make him part of the Jesse James legacy, has only caused more trouble for him. Affleck’s biting performance exudes the dejection and weariness that Bob feels, unable to ever truly triumph.
The Assassination of Jesse James has a strong, quiet sense of both artistry and entertainment. There are many breathtaking shots, and it’s clear that a lot of care and time went into making this film. I was especially impressed by the director Andrew Dominik’s ability to take a simple, static shot, like Bob and his brother sitting in a wheat field, and turn it into a dynamic scene. The cinematography here is top-notch, and that too is used effectively to move the film along. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would be worth watching for Casey Affleck’s stirring performance alone, but the languid, stark beauty of the film elevates it beyond being merely “good”.