The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a long title for a powerful epic about the most infamous outlaw in the Old West. James Oliver tells us why this Western matters.

Jesse James was a former Confederate soldier who achieved a measure of infamy after the American Civil War once he, and his elder brother Frank, became bank robbers.

His reputation continued to grow after his death (which came at the hands of former associate Bob Ford), the subject of sympathetic stories, songs, and shows which turned him into one of the great icons of the Old West and, eventually, a staple figure of cowboy movies.
 

Assassination Jesse James
Image via: The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
 

They don't make cowboy movies anymore, least ways not like they used to. Old-School Westerns were made up of American mythology—stories told by settlers about how they liked to see themselves.

These days, and for the past thirty-odd years, the Westerns that get made are historical dramas, which (mainly) aspire to explore, and sometimes deflate, America's presumptions about itself.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford approaches Jesse's story in a different way than most of his previous outings. It’s less concerned with re-telling this story than investigating the process by which mythologies are formed.
 

“This isn't the kind of Brad Pitt action movie that many viewers (and, no doubt, the studio who ponied up the budget) might have wished for. Rather, it is an reflective, and very intelligent drama”
 

Hell, Jesse James isn't even the main character, even though he's played—very well—by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film. Although Jesse is often on screen, the real focus is Bob Ford, played by an Oscar-nominated Casey Affleck.

The film starts with Bob joining the James gang, a nervous, star-struck boy who's thrilled to be so near his hero. But as the law draws nearer, and Jesse becomes more mistrustful and angry, so Bob's hero-worship dissipates.
 

The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Image via: The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
 

Fed up with life on the lam, Bob turns to the authorities; they don't need to do too much persuading to get the young turncoat to shoot his old boss. That act, though, creates a legend which imprisons, and ultimately destroys, Bob.

This isn't, then, the kind of Brad Pitt action movie that many viewers (and, no doubt, the studio who ponied up the budget) might have wished for. Rather it is a reflective and very intelligent drama that is better compared to egghead auteur Terence Malick than to, say, Michael Bay.

Perhaps that is unsurprising. After all, writer/ director Andrew Dominik is a professed Malick fan, who even helped out on Malick's masterpiece The New World, where Dominik seems to have learned valuable lessons about visual beauty.

Working with camera ace Roger Deakins and blessed with the sort of budget awarded by a studio hoping for a Brad Pitt action movie, Dominik created what might be the best-looking movie of the 21st century. The opening train robbery especially is one of the most gorgeous scenes in modern film.
 

In fact, so much of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is great. It's not just Affleck and Pitt (who, you suspect, slogged through 15 years of mediocrity for the opportunity to facilitate movies like this). All the cast are on peak form, especially Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider and, especially, Sam Rockwell as Bob's none-too-smart brother Charlie.

Dominik sets them to play amongst sets that transport us back to the 1880s and tops it off with a haunting, evocative score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

Despite all these wonders, the film falls, frustratingly, just short of being a masterpiece. Bob's relationship with Jesse isn't etched quite clearly enough and the story never flows quite as smoothly as it might.
 

The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Image via: The Assassination Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
 

As with so many nearly-great films, there are rumours that the studio performed surgery both to reduce the running time to make it just a little more palatable to the Brad Pitt Action Movie crowd, and that a much longer cut is locked somewhere in the vaults, just waiting to be rediscovered.

However, while nit-picking of the sort exhibited above deny a film greatness, such things can positively ensure cult status. Cult films, after all, are born of division.

For cultists, the things they love about their darlings will always be enough to trump the niggles that might deter other viewers. And it's not as if there isn't a lot to love about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Even if it isn't ultimately a masterpiece, it's a film that demands our respect.

 

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