7 Reasons Why “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a Modern Masterpiece

This year marks the ten year anniversary of the release of the critically acclaimed but criminally under watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Written and directed by Andrew Dominik and adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, it is one of the most accomplished films of the twenty-first century, yet it is hardly ever spoken about.

Brad Pitt plays the legendary figure Jesse James and Casey Affleck plays the coward Robert Ford, who joins the James gang with his brother Charley, played by Sam Rockwell, when they are planning the last of their infamous train heists: the Blue Cut train robbery. The film follows their relationship up to the assassination of Jesse James and how the events came about, as Ford’s idolisation of James led to him murdering his hero.

The film appeared on many critics’ top ten lists of the best films of 2007 and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Roger Deakins’ cinematography and the other for Casey Affleck’s performance in a supporting role. However, its critical acclaim did not correlate to achieving straightforward mainstream success as the film proved to be a commercial misfire, making only $15 million at the box office compared to its budget of $30 million. 2007 marked the release of the Coen Brothers’ Western thriller No Country for Old Men (2007).

Deakins was also the director of photography for this film, which succeeded in garnering Best Picture at the Academy Awards when The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was snubbed of a nomination. With both films being released within the same year, 2007 exhibited a resurgence of the contemporary Western. This is further proven when considering that Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) was released to widespread critical acclaim in the same year.

It is a shame that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford failed to garner similar awards attention to the other Western films released that year, as it deserved consideration for Best Picture, Director, and especially for one of Brad Pitt’s best performances of his entire career, as he succeeded in bringing to life the detached loneliness of the glorified outlaw expertly.

Criticisms from some viewers offered that the film was too long and too slow, hence its lack of popularity when it was originally released in 2007. However, Dominik’s second feature is certainly a bold and exceptional piece of filmmaking that adds depth to the Western genre.

The film is deserving of more praise and conversation surrounding its complex themes, riveting performances and stunning cinematography. At times understated while also being vast in scope, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford succeeds in capturing both the epic scale of the great Western while exploring an intimate character study.


7. The epic biopic


Of the many films made about Jesse James, this is the film which his ancestors claim is the most accurate and representative of what has been passed down through the generations. The history of Jesse James is familiar to many yet this biopic of epic proportions feels like a new take on both the way this story has been told before and the Western genre as a whole.

The lengthy running time and the presence of Hugh Ross’ narration throughout the film elevate the narrative by reinforcing its grand and contemplative nature. The time frame from 1881 to 1892 which follows Robert Ford from his first meeting with Jesse James to when Ford is eventually murdered emphasises the narrative’s dependence on character and contemplation over action, as the film is all about these two characters and their interactions.

This interpretation of the way to tell Jesse James’ story allows for the humanity in the criminal to be explored, as the film follows the relationship between the outlaw and the coward who obsesses over him. Ford empathises with James as he insists that “He’s just a human being”. Fame and celebrity aside, James is just like everyone else. Ford glorifies this ruthless killer and it is his obsession that turns to jealousy and betrayal which sets The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford apart from other films more driven by plot over character development.

From a young age Ford has obsessed over James, as he describes in detail “the many ways you and I overlap”. This journey from adoration to destruction explored in this way is refreshing in an often heavily masculinised genre which is dependent on action and violence. Dominik deconstructs the idea of the Western genre, by sidelining action and allowing quietness, contemplation and character to reign.


6. Andrew Dominik’s ambitious direction

Dominik’s first film was the Australian crime drama Chopper (2000), which told the story of one of Australia’s most infamous criminals. Seven years later he releases The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is again about another famous outlaw.

The final version of Dominik’s accomplished second feature is not the version of the film that he is most proud of, as he has confessed that there are two longer versions that he prefers, yet the studio rejected. Even his insistence on the use of the long title is ambitious, as the audience learns the fate of the characters from the beginning and is left with the inevitability to dwell over uncomfortably for the film’s long running time.

Dominik’s film allows for the character driven and contemplative moments to take centre stage and he doesn’t shy away from allowing scenes to take their time before they get anywhere. It is a delight to witness a director crafting a film where he’s not afraid to take risks by focusing on the quiet, slow and paced moments. It is easy to compare Dominik’s style of filmmaking to Terrence Malick’s, the most notable comparison being Days of Heaven (1978). However, even though Dominik is clearly inspired by the work of Malick, he expands on this to develop his own unique style which is fully realised.

By allowing the film to focus primarily on character, the narrative benefits from portraying a more complex version of Jesse James than is often portrayed in stories and legend. For a second feature, this is an astonishing triumph.


5. The outstanding performances

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should be granted masterpiece and classic status in part due to its selection of faultless performances. Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck give two of the best performances of their careers in roles which require depth and understanding of the dual relationship the characters have with one another.

Brad Pitt has stated this is his favourite film that he has acted in and his performance as the vacant and detached yet charismatic and menacing Jesse James is a testament to his acting talent. Pitt captures James’ loneliness in his celebrity and fame by not giving too much away with his performance. His demeanour is calm yet Pitt never allows the viewer to fully realise or understand what James is really thinking.

Ron Hansen, the writer of the novel the film is based on, described that it was as if Casey Affleck “was born to play this role”. Robert Ford idolised Jesse James from a young age and Affleck showcases this youthful admiration perfectly in his sensitive and dreamy eyed take on the young Robert Ford. He’s quiet and reserved in his character meaning that Ford is constantly in James’ shadow and it is this relationship between the two main characters which carries the film.

The fantastic array of supporting cast members, including Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Mary Louise-Parker and Sam Rockwell, are brilliant in the small roles they are given yet they are never more than supporting, as they do little more than push Pitt’s James and Affleck’s Ford and their relationship dynamic into the forefront of the narrative. This complete focus on the two titular characters adds to the isolation of the story and the intensity of knowing what is inevitably to come.