THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: 53: THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

by Laurent Kelly

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (2005)  – Director: Andrew Dominik   Adapted Screenplay: Andrew Dominik  Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary Louise-Parker, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider  OSCAR COUNT (0) – Nominated for Cinematography and Supporting Actor (Affleck)

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I have included this quote from the above film because it perfectly highlights the thematic drive of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Dominik’s picture expertly shows the thin line between truth and fiction as Jesse James, hero of countless gun-ho stories is exposed as a psychopathic, ruthless killer who is relentless in his pursuit of maintaining power and paranoid about losing it all.

Robert Ford has grown up reading about this heroic figure but comes to see that Jesse is not quite the man who he expected him to be. This loss of innocence is played brilliantly by Casey Affleck who brings to the role a peculiar mixture of child-like wonder and pent up aggression. The stories of Jesse have helped him to find an escape from his downtrodden path in life and when he gets to ride in his gang he clearly has visions of riding into the sun with a neverending smile. Instead however he comes to hate a man who takes great pleasure in teasing him and who Ford discovers is just as cold, distant and effected as the rest of the outside world.

When Ford shoots Jesse he is of course killing the child inside of him and his own attempts to become a legend backfire miserably. Lacking Jesse’s charisma and cool, Ford becomes labelled as a coward despite the fact that he has essentially ridded the world of a dangerous criminal. This comment on the fickle nature of society is excellently portrayed throughout the film as we see Ford go on a character journey from childlike naivety to bitter resentfulness.

Everything else about the film is superb too. Brad Pitt gives not just his lifetime best performance but also one of the finest cinematic performances ever committed to celluloid in his role as Jesse James. Everything from his unnerving eye movements to his quick flashes of aggression help to create an unsettling and quietly terrifying character who is as captivating to watch in the moments when he is completely still as when he is caught in a moment of panicked anger.

He is supported along the way by a plethora of great performances from the likes of Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary Louise-Parker and Paul Schneider.  All these performances also owe a great debt to some of the best dialogue ever written for a western film. Cackling with depth and authenticity, the most refreshing aspect of the words is the pauses between various lines. Short and nervy back and forth passages help to add rewarding layers to the tension in a film which takes extra care of making sure that each piece of dialogue feels as if coming straight from the character’s conflicted mindset.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the achingly beautiful cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins (still no Oscar!) who brings to life a series of visually arresting sequences that help to highlight the age old but increasingly relevant motif of nature being marred by the natural violence of man.

One of the very best films made in the last decade.

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3 responses to “THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME: 53: THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD

  1. Just saw this recently and I’d agree it belongs among the best films ever made. Deakins cinematography is at the top of his game and I too loved the portrayal of James of what he most likely was, a terrible man. Affleck exceeded my expectations as Robert Ford and he stole the show from what was indeed Pitt’s best performance of his life. Pitt’s icy stares were unsettling at times, his unhinged James a horror to behold.

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