There is an almost mythic timelessness that permeates Andrew Dominik’s 2007 will-be masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Seven years on it is not hard to see how such a monolithic, literary wonder failed to find an audience; its elegiac tenor, unhurried execution, and quiet moments of ferocious power must have proved too subtle, too restrained, alas, too poetic for an audience who had recently had seared blast holes made of their retinas by Paul Greengrass’ hyper-kinetic The Bourne Ultimatum, or Michael Bay’s first outing for the Transformers franchise. That being said, a film such as Assassination (as it will be referred to from here), was hardly competing for seats with those summer blockbusters that preceded it.
In fact, despite its considerable star power in Brad Pitt (the other familiar faces such as Casey Affleck and Jeremy Renner would find their fame later), the film must have screened to empty theatres upon release to account for its failure to recuperate more than half its modest $30 million budget. While the film was met with a shameful degree of critical indifference, it’s worth noting that Assassination was by no means a critical failure; in fact, several critics including Mark Kermode hailed it as the best film of the year, calling it “haunting perfection” (The Guardian). Kermode, excellent as he is, has seldom been more on-the-money – Assassination is both haunting and indeed perfect; a work of visionary genius whose quality may only be matched a couple of times over the course of an entire generation of filmmaking.
Perhaps it was a matter of bad timing – for, just as quickly as mumblings over Assassination’s Oscar credentials began to surface, they faded; stifled or dissipated entirely by the ominous and overbearing shadows of the two films that would go on to dominate the 2008 awards circuit, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Coincidentally, and sacrilegiously no less, Assassination would go on to garner just two Oscar nominations for Roger Deakins’ admittedly spectacular cinematography and for Casey Affleck’s disturbing supporting performance as the eponymous coward Robert Ford. It would no doubt prove an arbitrary and somewhat unprofitable argument to try and determine the greatest of these three peerless films, and yet therein lies the object of this “second chance” for Assassination; see this as an opportunity to re-evaluate Andrew Dominik’s (relatively) unsung moment of sublime and haunting perfection in order to lift it to the ranks of those two other doubtless masterpieces.
So why does Assassination deserve a second chance? The answer is simple: it is impeccable, eloquent filmmaking of the highest order that will be remembered in years to come as a triumph of its day. Of course, to argue such a case one must at some point cease providing a self-effacing overflow of superlatives and turn to the film itself. There is a fatalistic element coursing the veins of Assassination that chills to the bones. In Brad Pitt’s Jesse James there is an unshakeable sense of predestination; his Jesse is paranoid, nervous, violent, and terrifyingly unpredictable – one might quickly discern that it is those impulses that have kept him alive thus far, and that they are of course the selfsame traits that will lead to his inevitable, titular undoing. There is an authentic congruity to the thickly-accented and wordy dialogue that flits back and forth between the various characters in Jesse’s troupe who are never less than fully-formed individuals, complete with their own fears and insecurities to match those of the ever-enigmatic Jesse.
These themes concerning the passage of time and predestination contribute towards the disarming sensation that all of these characters are fated for tragic ruin, unable to escape retribution for the crimes of their former selves. All, that is, except Robert Ford who remains on the outside longingly looking in, played to sinister and slippery effect by Casey Affleck in the film that allowed him to fully emerge from his brother’s shadow. The film, adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, opens towards the end of Jesse’s life and details his relationship with his eventual assassin. The film in fact features only one of the many heists that contributed to Jesse’s enduring celebrity and limitless legend – nevertheless it is a flawlessly-constructed scene; a nighttime train robbery drenched with menace meticulously collected from Pitt’s incendiary performance, Deakins’ startling cinematography, and Dominik’s careful, unobtrusive direction.
The film is in fact a wonderful and somewhat indicting examination of the toxicity of celebrity culture; Jesse is a rock star of his time and the ardent curator of his own nefarious myth. Jesse’s character is handled with precision and care throughout by a career-best Pitt in a performance that should have won him a heap of awards. Affleck performs the subtle vulnerabilities of Jesse’s will-be killer with chilling conviction; his infatuation with Jesse is tinged with an almost sexual longing that surely fuels his climatic act which is sudden, shocking, and eerily heartbreaking.
Finally, the object of Ford’s desire is not Jesse but fame itself; in his hollow attempts to acquire such fame Ford catapults into motion the celebrity pendulum that briefly ascends before its inevitable fall. The legacy of Ford’s actions are writ large across a similar series of events that occurred nearly a century later; it is hard not to be haunted by Ford’s precedent that is scored into the narrative of “The Assassination of John Lennon by the Coward Mark Chapman”, when Chapman famously had Lennon sign an LP for him just hours before his atrocious act. In his glowing review, film critic Stephen Whitty called the film “a Jesse for our times” (The Star-Ledger); one could go further and argue that this is a Jesse for all time as the film takes its rightful place among a select bunch of 21st century cinematic masterworks.