By Christian DiMartino
Something has always kept me from seeing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That something being the length. Not just from the title, but the runtime itself. Yeah, it’s two hours and 40 minutes, and I have also seen The Irishman a few times, Magnolia a plethora of times, and so on. Yet this is a western we’re talking about- a genre I typically enjoy, but I must be in a certain mood to watch.
The Assassination of Jesse James (not typing all of that again) is indeed a very good movie, and there is much to love about it. I want to say that it’s a great movie, and it is close to one. Yet, like my initial reservations about it, that length just sort of gets in the way. It is a long journey, but one that deserves to be taken nonetheless.
As one would imagine, the film lives up to its title. The film follows the legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his gang. After they pull off “one last job,” a night-time train robbery (this sequence is breathtakingly filmed), the gang decides to lay low. The rest of the events in the film mostly focus on the way that the gang begins to drift apart. There’s betrayal, murder and so on. The character of Robert Ford must also be included in the plot synopsis too, seeing as he’s in the title. Ford (Casey Affleck) is a young lad who is, in a sense, really intrigued by James… to a certain degree. He wants to be him, in some ways, but as you can tell from the title, his feelings towards James do shift gears.
Some may say that The Assassination of Jesse James is a slog, or that it’s a slow burn. While I do believe the film to be too long, I also didn’t find it to be a slog, or too slow of a burn. By western standards, this film may not have the thrills of something like True Grit, but it’s a film that tells an engaging story, rather beautifully, with characters who are interesting, and their situations just as interesting. It doesn’t drag or sag, but by the end of it, it does feel like it could use a bit of a trim.
The length does not get in the way of its strength though. Strengths, plural, to be exact. There are, indeed, many great elements at play here. Roger Deakins may not be a household name, but in the eyes of true movie lovers, he bloody well should be, and this film is part of the reason why. Deakins, as some may know, is the legendary cinematographer behind Fargo, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption, No Country for Old Men, Blade Runner 2049, and 1917, to name a few. All beautifully, uniquely filmed films. His work on this film is just as great as that, if not better. The aforementioned train robbery, for example, is utterly glorious, among the best sequences he’s ever captured on film. Even the simplest of moments are picturesque. It is clear that Deakins and director Andrew Dominik had a clear artistic vision when making this film, and with the way that they capture the details of the landscapes and the production design, they definitely pulled off a beauty.
I also liked the screenplay too. Much of what comes out these characters’ mouths threw me off on many occasions… but that is perhaps because people actually spoke like this in the old west. The score, co-written by Nick Cave, is also a work of beauty; a mix of the kind of music you expect to hear in a western, with a touch of melancholy.
Admittedly, I could have done without the narration- it does fill us in throughout, but the voice also took me out of the movie from time to time. Yet the acting here is top notch. From the smaller roles from Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider, to the major. Yet the film belongs to its two leads, Pitt and Affleck. Affleck received his first Oscar nomination here, and it’s pretty plain to see why. His Robert Ford is a pretty interesting guy- he longs to be a man that he ultimately despises, but it’s not so much about what James actually does, but rather, the glory (or in his case infamy) that came with it. Pitt’s performance here is, in my opinion, his most underrated. Pitt is his usual calm, reserved self, and yet there’s also a clearly menacing side. I found myself quite frightened of him a good chunk of the time because the performance is so convincing, but also because Dominik includes a lot of silence here, and it works to his advantage. I particularly loved a dinner sequence in which Jesse and Robert so clearly have thoughts about one another, and rather than confront each other, they choose to get on each other’s nerves. Everything about that scene is brilliantly written, directed, and acted.
The Assassination of Jesse James is a notch below great. Shoot, maybe it is great. Maybe in time, its greatness will finally hit me. Until then, its near-greatness will more than suffice. Here is a film that, I imagine, must have been difficult to sell- a two hour and 40 minute western without a whole lot of action. With Pitt and Affleck at the reins though, it was probably safe to say that they had a keeper.