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Jesse James and Robert Ford – April’s Film!

May 3, 2011

April’s film was Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen (which I read by the way and I can say that the film is incredibly faithful).

Although the film has been nominated for 2 oscars (Best Supporting Actor – Casey Affleck, and Cinematography – Roger Deakins), it did not receive much recognition by audiences and flew under the radar. I was unaware of the film until my friend who caught it at his local art house theater told me it was amazing. I bought it on DVD about a year or two later and was blown away.

Let me begin with the cinematography. That year Roger Deakins was nominated twice for the same category (also for No Country for Old Men) but unfortunately lost to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood. The vast fields of the old west and the sepia tone of the film gives it that old time look, reminiscent of the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, particularly Christina’s World. The night time photography of the railroad robbery is just breathtaking and describing it in words would not even do it justice.

Reading up on the film, I found out that Deakins and Dominik created a specialty lens to create that tunnel-vision blur on some of the shots for an antique camera-look. Also the use of silhouettes and slow motion is brilliant, really adding to the enigmatic quality of Jesse James. The production was really able to breathe new life into a genre that is considered practically dead with, ironically, stunning new visuals to recreate that old feel. According to, Deakins is quoted as saying,

Andrew said he wanted to create a Victorian Western, and he had a lot of visual references, from photographs to paintings and stills from other movies.  But this was the 1870s, kind of late for a western.  Jesse James was around at a time when the west was really changing; he lived in an area that was bustling.  And Andrew wanted to get across that notion of change.

However, visuals alone cannot carry a film. Jesse James is also very well acted. Casey Affleck delivers a brilliant performance as Robert Ford, changing from the green and enthusiastic fanboy to the resentful and dangerous man. Brad Pitt is haunting. I never thought he would pull off such a great performance but I guess this is where his experience as an actor really comes through.

The film also challenges the western genre of pacing which is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller. The film is more a character study than a standard narrative. The film really savors its moments with Jesse James, where at first glance it seems like something will happen but nothing really does… or did it? The scene where Jesse and Charlie are by the frozen lake and Jesse starts shooting at the fish swimming below comes to mind. There’s a poetic quality to these moments in which Dominik forces the audience put pieces of a puzzle together to discover an answer.

Jesse James’ motivations are ambiguous but they make sense. In other words, Jesse’s subtext is always there but never decipherable. We, the audience, are just as confused as the characters that interact with Jesse when he arrives at their individual houses. However, we also know just as they do, that there is a deep, underlying reason for it which may or may not surface. It seemed to me that he was searching for repentance and reflecting on himself through his journey to find his old gang. The journey itself is a soul searching attempt to come to terms with himself as a human being. The voice over narrates that he had no regrets for the people he has killed but is it true? The moment of his death could be read otherwise; a very Le Samourai moment of catharsis. The ultimate redemption, perhaps? This is what is so beautiful, I find, about the film is that Robert Ford, who practically apotheosized Jesse James slowly begins to realize that he is no more human than any of us. He is not a cold blooded killer and highway robber but a man who cries and takes care of his children. A man of mystery, yes, but a man nonetheless and a troubled one at that.

One of the best of 2007, it is sad that this film got overshadowed by other great films. I could go on and on about how wonderful it is but if you haven’t seen it already, I hope this has inspired you to check it out. It made it on the “top 10 lists of 2007” of many film critics.

As a final word, it’s interesting to think about how similar and different Jesse James’ death is compared to Osama Bin Laden’s death. Jesse, a rebel outlaw, went on to become a legend and folk tale of American culture, I believe, simply because his death was nostalgic of the old west. As Deakins said, the film takes place during a time of change to the modern era and we as humans always want to hold on to fleeting moments of the past. Osama will undoubtedly go on to be forever known as the evil terrorist mastermind but who knows how he will go on to be perceived in his own country, or the world, as history plays itself out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. carlos permalink
    May 9, 2011 6:51 pm

    you’re right. it is a visually great film. you can feel the paranoia of the characters. Those were some of my favorite parts when Bob starts to believe “he’s just a human being”. Then you got Jesse watching Charlie sleep, man if that’s not creepy I don’t know what it is.

    • May 10, 2011 12:54 am

      Yeah, I love that scene. It’s like he’s psychic.

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