The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

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2007 was a fascinating year for cinema for one particular reason – it saw the release of three films – No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. These films have an interesting distinction – they are analogous in the way that they are postmodern Western films, a genre that has gone from being the blockbusters of their age to quirky novelty, or indie catnip, in the modern era (much like what I expect will happen with superhero films). They are all very different kinds of Westerns (taking place in different periods), but they are all Revisionist in some regards, but more than anything, they have something else in common – they are all amongst the greatest films of the twenty-first century. I finally completed my viewing of this essential faux-trilogy with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which absolutely blew me away and makes me question There Will Be Blood’s placement as the greatest film of the current century (but don’t fret, it doesn’t – There Will Be Blood still towers above everything else). Yet, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is simply superb, and a masterpiece.

In terms of the Wild West, there are two names that are often seen as being the epitome of American outlaws – Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Of course, by the title we can discern that this film is about the latter – but it is far more complex than simply being a biographical account of the legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Rather, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks at its infamous subject through the eyes of the other titular character, which is in itself already massively experimental. The story of Jesse James is told from the perspective of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who goes from idolizing James to being the very person who pulls the trigger on James, bringing his reign of terror (or was it delight? This is one of the core questions that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford begs the audience to consider) to an end.

Where to start on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? First of all, I was struck by the utter beauty of this film. I rarely see a film that makes me gasp in how beautiful it is. Now many Western films include some truly innovative cinematography, but not only does The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford make the landscapes look utterly incredible, the most beautiful moments are when the small and intimate moments are framed so perfectly, with such tangible beauty. Now it shouldn’t come as any surprise that Roger Deakins served as cinematographer for the film. I don’t often use the cinematography of a film as the centerpiece of my review, but honestly, I can’t remember a time I saw a film that made me marvel at its sheer beauty as much as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and considering it came out in the same year as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, both Western films that made use of some incredible cinematography themselves (the former coincidentally also photographed by Deakins). Films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are exactly what make me want to make films, because it proves that cinema is art, and that every single frame of this film could be a beautiful painting.

I honestly thought that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was inspired by Terrence Malick, considering how self-reflective and experimental it is, and how dedicated it is to looking as beautiful as often as possible. The narration is obnoxious (in the best possible way – I mean that as a compliment) and the tone is just so bizarre, it is impossible to not consider this as one of the greatest films ever made. There is just so much to unpack and discuss about this film – even the title is a work of art (only someone truly insane could name their work The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – it is most certainly a mouthful, but its just delightful to say). I could just go on and on about the smaller aspects of this film for hours without getting to any particular point. That is how brilliant this film is – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is so great, the story could be an afterthought).

But the story is not an afterthought at all – in fact, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is just so brilliant on the story level. It has the perfect combination of dialogue and narrative, and it is only further amplified by the performances from the cast that are beyond brilliant. Andrew Dominik is clearly a supremely talented filmmaker, and I am a bit disappointed that in the decade since this film came out, Dominik hasn’t become one of the most sought-after filmmakers, because The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the most superb films ever made, and every aspect of this film rapidly approaches perfection, and proves that perfect films quite possibly do exist. To be fair, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does have flaws – but they’re so insignificant, they are useless to mention.

Let’s focus on the two titular characters. The first is obviously Brad Pitt, who proves why he is one of the most famous actors of all time. It is easy to forget that Pitt actually is a pretty brilliant actor, and not just a symbol. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford offers him his most challenging role – and when you have a role like Jesse James, a far more complex character than what I’d ever expected, it is just brings out the very best in Pitt. I think that this may be Pitt’s greatest performance, because I have never seen him this good and I doubt I ever will. It is easy to forget that Pitt is a star for a reason, and films like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford just prove that he can really stretch himself. I need to see Pitt this committed to a performance more often.

Now that we’ve spoken about Pitt, let’s get to the real best performance. Academy Award-winner Casey Affleck (I will never get tired of saying that) plays the other titular character, in a performance that rivals Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood as the greatest performance of the twenty-first century (right now I’d place him in third place, behind Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds) – and while he is arguably slightly better in Manchester by the Sea, I keep changing my mind on which performance was better and I am going to grapple with this question for a long time. But both films prove that Affleck is truly an extraordinary actor.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was a turning point in Affleck’s career – he wasn’t only Ben Affleck’s kid brother anymore, he was a fully-realized actor in his own right, and his performance here is just one for the ages. The best kind of character development is the kind that makes the audience question if this was merely a character. I have rarely seen a performance as complex and intricate as Affleck’s performance here, and by the time this sprawling film ended, I still had no idea who the hero or villain of this film was – I could probably write a thesis on that very question, because I still don’t even know how to answer the questions this film places right there in the title – was Jesse James really a victim, and was Robert Ford really a coward, or was he the real victim? It is this kind of complexity that reminds me of why I love cinema.

A special mention must go out to the rest of the cast of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Sam Rockwell is actually impressive as Charley Ford, and he manages to prevent being overshadowed by Pitt and Affleck by holding his own and being dedicated to bringing his character to life. It was wonderful to see Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider and Garrett Dillahunt as the other members of the James Gang, considering they would all go their own ways and become bigger stars after this film – I am still anxiously awaiting the huge breakout roles for Schneider and Dillahunt. Every member of the supporting cast of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was absolutely astounding and managed to elevate it even higher than it already was. Even the smallest performance was brilliant, which speaks a lot to the writing, directing the talent of the actors themselves.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a nearly perfect film – the performances are remarkable, the cinematography is beyond heavenly and the writing is brilliant. The film is also extraordinarily long, clocking in at nearly three-hours – but it flies by, and I could have watched this film for hours, because it was just so beautiful to look at, and so compellingly incredible. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the greatest films ever made, and it is ultimately a rewarding experience. Films like this aren’t supposed to exist, because it makes so many other films pale in comparison. It is a dark, complex and beautiful film.

I will show The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to absolutely everyone, because this is not only great cinema, it is the epitome of art. The fact that I spent the last ten years of my life without having seen this film actually angers me, because I feel like in some way, if I had seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford when I had heard about it a decade ago, I would’ve lived a slightly more fulfilled life. Its odd to say but I feel like my perception of a lot of things has changed – and that’s what great art is supposed to do, change your life and your thinking. Absolutely brilliant in every single way.

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