directed by: Andrew Dominik
starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel
Released in 2007.
One of my hallmarks of great storytelling is knowing your characters. It's not always essential to base the entire story around exploring these characters so much as what happens to them, but it certainly helps. This is a movie about Robert Ford, not Jesse James. As the title suggests, Ford killed James, and this is an attempt to explain why.
Actually, that's half the fascination for me about Assassination of Jesse James, that it doesn't feature the more famous of its subjects as the lead. In this movie, Jesse James is more myth than man. All his best banditry is in the past. He's actually just a man, but he's most definitely a myth to Robert Ford, who has grown up reading about Jesse and all but fallen in love with him (although that's more implied than explicit). The basic plot is Robert signing up to be a part of Jesse's last big job and the gang's efforts to then fade away.
Now, obviously the notoriety of Jesse James works both ways. He'll have had his admirers. He'll also have had the authorities gunning for him. Robert Ford ends up straddling both, once he finally sees behind the curtain he previously held in front of Jesse. That's how he ends up standing behind the famous outlaw as Jesse stands on a chair to some dusting. It's a moment that's repeated several times at the back-end of the movie, first as it really happens and later as Robert recreates it for the stage. Because it's Robert's movie, it continues after the title event, as the so-called coward tries to come to peace with what he's done.
Robert Ford is portrayed by Casey Affleck, the younger brother of Ben Affleck. Although Casey has cared a pretty respectable career for himself, he's nowhere near the league of his brother. For one, he has a softer voice that he either can't or won't mask. It's an ideal feature for a youthful and naive character like Robert Ford, a sycophant who definitely suggests the sickness of such a role. You have sympathy for him, sometimes, and at others you despise him.
Which is funny, because the man he shoots was not a good man. Well, maybe some people could construe Jesse James in a positive light. In this movie he's played by the bigger star, Brad Pitt. I've long been interested in the career of Pitt. He's filled it with contradictory roles, mostly because he's terrified of being defined only by his physical appearance. Jesse James is certainly one of those contradictory roles, and maybe it's exactly right to cast a big star in the role, to signal to the audience in an immediate way that aside from everything else this was a guy who knew how to draw attention to himself. There would always be a lot more to him than someone like Robert Ford could comprehend, and yet he was also exactly what his historical reputation marks him out to be: a bad apple.
Yet Pitt finds the human in him, enough so that you're forced to remember that in Robert's mind this was a horribly complicated situation. Jesse was a hero to him, Robert's idol, and yet the man didn't live up to the myth. Robert quite deliberately shot him in the back. Pitt doesn't make the role too flashy, which is an underrated specialty of his. Occasionally he'll take a role like in Twelve Monkeys where he's a spastic attraction, but that speaks more to Pitt's range than any particular style. In the end he's exactly what he wants to be, and that's not just a pretty face. Assassination of Jesse James is his best film.
Director Andrew Dominik, who's still only at the start of a brilliant career, hits an unmistakable milestone with this film. It's divisive, because it's meditative where most viewers prefer action or clever characters, but it's also one of the most gorgeous movies you'll ever see. It's also got, behind Pitt and Affleck, plenty of supporting actors you'l love to watch navigate the film, including Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel.