Somewhere in the four-plus hours of film that New Zealand director Andrew Dominik shot for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” has to be a cut fully capable of winning an Oscar for Best Picture. This version, however, is not it, but it’s beautifully filmed and supported by incredible acting. Length (157 minutes) and a few scenes that wander off just enough to deflate the plot’s naturally thriving tension are the only hurdles too high for this underrated ensemble to jump.
Based on Ron Hansen’s book of the same title, “Jesse James” is a historical fiction account of the great American outlaw: the man, the myth, the legend (literally) — Jesse James. It tells the story of how the young man Bob Ford, who would eventually come to kill him, joined the famous gang of bandits and how he came to commit the “cowardly” act that forever lived in infamy.
Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the two titular characters form one of the more intriguing relationships on the screen. As the one huge name in the cast, Pitt is perfectly cast as James, a cold outlaw that creates tension by utilizing the fear of everyone around him. Affleck is the socially awkward Ford, who used to idolize James growing up. Now that he’s become part of the gang, Ford’s ideal image of his hero has been shattered. The transformation he goes through from being naive to pulling the trigger on James gives Affleck an incredible range to work with. He’s simply under-appreciated in Hollywood or he’s really selective.
That’s not to diminish, however, the talent around him. Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner have impressive chemistry as part of the James’ brothers gang. The script provides great subtext for their characters, but each is capable of so many levels. One minute they’re joking around and the next they’re bullies or even killers.
Lastly, cinematographer Roger Deakins does absolutely gorgeous things with the lighting of this film. From the onset there’s the scene of the James gang waiting in the woods for a train they’ve obstructed to stop so they can loot it. The train’s headlight shines through the trees as it moves and ripples over their hooded faces, elevating the anticipation of the first action sequence of the film. On the whole, “Assassination” has the look of a great cinematic tragedy. The assassination scene in particular is so visually memorable. All the deaths in the film, in fact, have that traumatic effect on the audience.
Then there’s length. Scenes just kind of get lost. The excellent ending really pulls you back in to the film and leaves a favorable impression, but many middle sections are too quiet despite the ever-growing tension caused by the inevitability of the film’s conclusion. It’s hard to believe there wasn’t a way to edit this film to make it of both tolerable length and a bit more streamlined through the middle because this cast, crew and story is clearly worthy of more recognition for this first-class effort.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Written by Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen (novel)
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner