*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. Though one could argue the title, and history, has already spoiled the main event of the film.
With a lot of people seemingly just now realizing Brad Pitt can act with Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood and Ad Astra, I decided to go with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for this month’s western. I have liked Pitt’s work for years, and 12 Monkeys was the first time I saw him more as an actor than a face. He has plenty of great roles under his belt, but I consider his work in this film some of his best. The Jesse James of this film is a mean, brutal, reflective, paranoid, charismatic, and generally complex character, and Pitt handles every element with ease. Perhaps it’s the meta-quality of the film that makes it stand out for me, as Jesse James was a celebrity of the time, Pitt could easily find common ground in that area. How often must Pitt deal with people in his life that come to him with a certain expectation of who he is based on performances and tabloid stories rather than his actual self. Jesse James, at least in the film (and probably in real life), also had to deal with perceptions of him compared to the real, very human, man he really was. Watching Pitt navigate that character is just one of the many pleasures of this underseen, understated western.
Myth Vs. Reality
It should be clear by my previous choices for westerns in recent months that I prefer non-traditional, or modern westerns. I enjoy traditional westerns, but the westerns I want to own and revisit from time to time usually need to be a bit different, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford certainly qualifies. In fact, the story of Jesse James is the perfect subject for a modern western, because, just like Jesse James, the myth of the Old West time period compared to historical reality is often very different.
In the film, Robert Ford starts off idolizing Jesse James and his gang because he believed the stories he read as a child, which made James out to be a Robin Hood type hero. A big part of the reason Ford eventually betrays James is because he is disillusioned with James after meeting him; don’t meet your heroes, and all that. This allows the film to be a statement about celebrity, as well, and not just in regards to James. Ford becomes a celebrity after killing James, and he gets a taste of the downfall of having your reputation arrive before you. The film is a bit of a condemnation of celebrity culture and the dangers of chasing stardom at the expense of your soul. That element alone resonates with me for days after each viewing because the ending is so depressing and perfect, with Robert Ford dying as a result of his quest for celebrity, with nothing about his life turning out the way he had hoped.
Much like Robert Ford’s disillusionment, researching the Old West also leads to a bit of disappointment when compared to the Hollywood version we’ve seen for years. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of many westerns that highlights the reality of the era rather than glorifying it.
The most obvious example that this is not a traditional western is the gunfight between Dick Liddil, Wood Hite, and Robert Ford. Dick and Wood shoot at each other at nearly point blank range, unloading their guns without either of them inflicting a mortal wound. Just like Unforgiven (which I will also write about in the future), the shootout is meant to show that when it comes to actually pulling a trigger a lot of factors come into play and the result is more sloppy than cinematic. I love a good Old West shootout as much as anyone, but I also appreciate realism. We all like to think we could be Clint Eastwood when the chips are down, but more likely most of us would be like Dick Liddil, missing shot after shot as we fall out of bed.
Aside from the shootouts, I love it when historical films highlight the mundane day-to-day life of the time period. Travel time and communication plays a big factor in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. People are often gone because a trip from place to place takes weeks. Word travels slowly, so scheming is a bit easier as is hiding from people. Robert Ford is only forced to play his hand when Jesse reads a newspaper article. It’s a slow time, and the film replicates it poetically rather than in a boring manner.
I hate to refer to a film as a “tone poem” at this point, mainly because I’ve overused it over the years, especially in reference to films like those of Terence Malick (whose later films make for an easy comparison to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It’s not that it doesn’t fit, because it certainly does, but I just feel like it has become my go-to descriptor for a movie others might consider boring. I guess I just need to start being blunt about: a lot of people find this film boring, and I can understand why. But I find each frame beautiful and compelling, even when nothing is going on.
Anyone who might find this film boring is probably just dealing with incorrect expectations. Many people still want their westerns to be old-fashioned, filled with stand-offs and shoot-outs. I still like that stuff, too, but I knew going in that this movie wasn’t promising anything like that. Perhaps it’s the title. Speaking of which...
TAOJJBTCRF, and Other Reasons Why This Movie May Have Failed Financially.
You may have noticed I have made no effort to shorten the title of this film. First off, the facetious shortening in the title of this section looks pretty stupid. Secondly, a title this long should just be embraced at this point. It is the title of the book the film is based on, and, according to IMDb trivia, Brad Pitt insisted that the title remain.
I like the title, but for years after this movie came out I would always get a weird look when I recommended it. I had similar issues with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (another movie I love and will write about soon). I would get into a conversation with someone about westerns and recommend these two films and just get a weird look after spitting out these mouthfuls of titles. If just calling this film The Assassination of Jesse James would have made it more popular, I wish they would have altered it a bit.
Title aside, this film was never going to be a huge success. The aforementioned tone poem aspect is usually an indicator that not many people are going to bother with the movie. Plus, it’s on the long side, and it’s just not a traditional film. All the things I like about this movie are also the things that most likely kept it from being a success. I could accept that if this film had a bunch of nobodies in it, but how did this happen with Brad Pitt as Jesse James?
I remember when this movie (kind of) came out in theaters. I had seen the previews and was very excited to see it, even reading the book beforehand. I thought it looked amazing. The release date came and went and no theaters near me picked it up. It eventually left theaters entirely never getting close to me. (I didn’t check Louisville [an hour and a half away] at the time, but Evansville [an hour away and my go-to for smaller films] never got it.) I couldn’t believe it. Brad Pitt’s new movie did not get a wide release. This was the first time I recognized the death of star power. Years ago, just having someone like Pitt in a movie would warrant at least a small wide release. But now, it doesn’t matter. If a studio doesn’t think the film can make a definite profit, then it doesn’t matter who’s in the cast; that movie is not getting a wide release. It’s always annoyed me so much, especially living in the Midwest. I just want studios to let the audience decide. Give the film a week in wide release, especially since everything is digital now and doesn’t require expensive film reels dispersed nationwide. But it won’t happen thanks to streaming and whatnot. I just wish so much that I had the chance to see this on the big screen.
Roger Deakins didn't win for this?
Until he won for Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins’s losing streak at the Oscars for Best Cinematography was a cruel joke. This man has made some of the most beautiful films ever made, and he somehow got passed over each year, including the year The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came out. Deakins lost to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood, so it’s hard to be too mad about that, especially when you realize Deakins was double nominated for this and No Country for Old Men, and he most likely split votes because of it. This film is special, though, because he created such a unique western look for the film.
The narrated moments that show parts of Jesse’s daily life look like moving daguerreotypes of the time, and it’s a magical effect. Not to mention the train sequence early in the film, which Deakins claims is one of his finest achievements. His work in this film is why I want to see the longer cut of the film that was released at festivals.
Deakins claimed in an interview that Criterion isn’t interested in releasing it (pretty much the only way it could happen). Why the people who chose to give Armageddon a special edition won’t touch this is beyond me. Of course, I want just want to see more of this movie overall, but I also want to see all the work Deakins did that didn’t make it. Apparently there was a four-hour cut originally, but writer/director Andrew Dominik claims he’s happy with the theatrical cut. With all due respect, let us be the judge of that.
I suppose that sums up how I feel about this movie. It’s a nearly three hour, slow moving treatise on celebrity and myths, and I want at least another hour of it.
"The president of the Confederacy discerned his wife's needs and satisfied them, with the utmost skill and the utmost courtesy."
Bob sitting down just as chow is called and everyone else gets up is such a perfect introduction to his awkward, out of place character.
God, Garrett Dillahunt is so good at looking stupid.
Sam Shepard sees through Bob's bullshit immediately.
"Well, what am I supposed to say to that?"
"So you can examine my grit and intelligence."
"I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
I don't know why, but it makes me laugh when Frank calls Jesse "dingus."
The approach of the train has so many beautiful moments: the train hitting the camera and continuing forward, the flashing lights revealing the robbers, Jesse's silhouette as the train approaches, etc. Not to mention the score.
"I about heard all I want to about sidekicks."
I wish Shepard was in this longer. I could watch him talk shit to Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell all day.
What happened to Paul Schneider? After he left Parks and Rec, he has worked sparingly. He gave an interview about being more selective in his work, but it just seems strange to drop off as much as he has.
Brad Pitt's fake laugh when he visits the Fords after Renner's death is amazing.
This movie could also be called The Many Tense Conversations of Jesse James with Ed Miller, Dick Liddil, Charley Ford, Robert Ford, and Others.
I don't mind the casting of James Carville as the governor, but it is a but distracting.
The noise Pitt makes when he says he could see the "gears grinding" after he almost cut Bob's throat might be my favorite moment from his career.
So much of this film is shot through that old timey glass that obscures the view a bit. It's like the era itself: everything we know about it is a bit blurry, the full vision forever elusive. Sorry for the poetic analysis; this movie brings that out in me.
The actual death feels staged like a play, which is, of course, fitting since the Fords would go on to put on the play.
Sam Rockwell is so good during the play sequences, first acting terribly, and finally becoming incredibly dark.
Everything after Jesse is killed is my favorite part of the film. The transition of Bob from annoying murderous fanboy to tragic man of regret is perfect.
"Charley was only expected not to slouch, or mutter. And to transport his sicknesses to the alley before letting them go."
I love Nick Cave's score, and his cameo singing a folk song about Jesse James.
I can't think of another film that truly made me end up liking, or at least sympathizing with, a character I initially hated. A lot of that is because of Affleck’s performance, which I still consider the best of his career.
Because of that, the last moment of the film now gives me chills and nearly made me cry this time.