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Retro Review: The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

 When I saw this film in theaters back in 2007, I wasn't overly impressed. Sure, the cinematography was great and Pitt was really solid, but The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford didn't even make my top ten of that year. Inexplicably, I decided to revisit the film (something I don't do very often, and especially not films with long run times), and I'm really glad I did. I appreciated the pacing much more this time around; what I first considered "slow," I now consider "deliberate," and even though general audiences will probably not easily connect with it, I believe this film is one of the finest commentaries on celebrity culture made in the past ten years.

I missed the commentary aspects when it was released back in 2007: not because they are subtle - they aren't - but because I wasn't watching the film with a particularly critical eye. It's no mistake that talented writer/director Andrew Dominik cast one of the world's biggest stars as one of America's most famous historical figures; as anyone who has stepped foot in a grocery store checkout line over the past few years can see, Pitt - like James - has become nearly more renowned for the pop culture that has built up around him than for his actual deeds. 

Another aspect of this film I missed the first time around was the amazing supporting cast. Granted, back in '07 I wasn't nearly as familiar with these folks as I am now, but check out the names in this cast:

Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker)
Sam Rockwell (Iron Man 2)
Paul Schneider (Mark Brendanawicz from TV's "Parks and Recreation")
Garret Dillahunt (John Henry from TV's "The Sarah Connor Chronicles")
Zooey Deschanel ((500) Days of Summer)

Not only were these actors featured heavily in the film (save for Deschanel, who has little more than a cameo), they all gave outstanding performances. The men are part of the James gang, and do a great job of embodying separate characters rather than falling into the gang mentality that pervades many westerns where you can't distinguish one secondary character from another. They also avoid turning into one-note cliches: Schneider is more than just a ladies man, Rockwell brings depth to the role of an older brother, and Dillahunt displays exceptional range in a one-on-one scene with Pitt in an old cabin.

 

I was also off the mark with my original assessment that the train robbery sequence was somehow "boring." I have no idea how I once thought that - I was glued to my seat this time, immersed in the heist and nearly in awe of how well-executed the scene was as a whole.

One thing I did manage to get right in my first look at this absurdly-titled film was how amazing Roger Deakins' cinematography is. I perhaps understated it the first time around; this is some of the best cinematography I've seen in any genre, and a fantastic entry into a western genre hailed for its beautifully shot films. If you're looking for a gorgeous looking film, throw this bad boy on mute and put it on while you're doing your taxes or something - the images alone have the power to completely capture the audience and totally sucked me into the world Dominik created.

Pitt gives a powerful performance as Jesse James, blurring the line between the actor's real life struggles with fame and his character's similar issues. It's a brave performance that is too often overlooked. Affleck is phenomenal as Ford; his "annoying" voice (to use a phrase from my ill-thought-out first ramblings on the film) is a trait essential to the character. Affleck, age 30 while filming this project, had to convince audiences he was ten years younger. Cracking his voice and slowing his vocal delivery added an amazing amount to his overall character; even though he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, I somehow feel his is another criminally overlooked performance.

Not only was Dominik's direction completely on point, his writing imbued the film with a sense of realism and a documentary-style authenticity that nearly made me forget I was watching a fictionalized take on the James gang. Take, for example, this exchange near the end of the film between Ford and his new girlfriend which serves as a commentary on the War on Terror:

Dorothy: Why did you kill him?
Bob Ford: He was going to kill me.
Dorothy: So you were scared, and that's the only reason?
Bob Ford: And for the reward money.
Dorothy: Do you want me to change the subject?
Bob Ford: Do you know what I expected? Applause. I was only 20 years old then. I couldn't see how it would look to people. I've been surprised by what's happened.

It's a shame Dominik has only directed one other film so far: 2000's Chopper, which I haven't had a chance to see yet. Thankfully, he's got a Marilyn Monroe film coming up with Naomi Watts attached to star. I'm looking forward to catching up with his filmography and continuing to keep an eye on him as he moves through his career. If you haven't seen this movie and are willing to delve into a deliberately-paced western, I'd say give this one a chance. Until next time...

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