The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - DVD Review

If there’s one thing that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should reveal to the cinematic public, it’s the great power that fantastic cinematography can have over a film and an audience. Like virtually no other film before it, Andrew Dominik’s film lets its imagery take centre stage, relying on cinematographer Roger Deakins to drive the narrative along creating results which are nothing short of startling.

The Assassination… tells the story of Jesse James’ (Brad Pitt) death at the hands of one of his own band of outlaws, the infamous Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). In doing so the film questions James’ and Ford’s motivations, morals and existences in a tender and ambiguous way which leaves little to the imagination but plenty to debate.

The central performances by Pitt and Affleck are outstanding and Affleck’s Best Supporting Actor nomination well deserved. With James, Pitt creates a monolith, impenetrable to both audience and characters. Dominik denies us any meaningful glimpse into James’ private life and in doing so leaves him as a distant legend, malleable into each individual watcher’s own image. Ford on the other hand is singled out from the very beginning as a loner. A confused and devoted fan of James he gains access to his gang despite the reservations of many, to consequences which the film, and the extended title, are all too aware of.

The genius of the film lies not only in its ability to present every single image with the framing of picture-postcard American wild-west but with the fact that so much of it is open to debate. James is not a likeable character and his status seems based on brutal and illegal robberies but then Ford’s is initially likewise and later highlights his prowess as a murderer. Similarly the lawmen, when they are given any time on screen, are shown as being as morally ambiguous as the outlaws while America at large must take some of the blame for the films events due to its own rampant fascination with the outlaw culture.

Much has been made of the relevancy of the film’s message now, the fact that it reflects much about the celebrity culture of both modern America and Britain. It seems aptly placed the Pitt is the only real star of the film and that Affleck is an up-and-coming protégé. However, accentuating this is rather missing the point. The ‘celebrity’ of James is one the film make clear was fashioned from fear and infamy, relying on the fact that he could be the guy sitting next to you in the local saloon. His was a celebrity you could almost touch on a daily basis, ours is one at once distant and tragically familiar.

There’s no doubt that Assassination… is a masterpiece of modern cinema. If there are errors here they are few and far between. Pitt occasionally resorts to the troublingly insane laugh of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden to reveal James’ ‘mad’ side while the rather too zany antics of Sam Rockwell as the supposedly more sensible Ford brother are hopelessly miss-cast. This is a film however, where its own artistry ascends anything else held within. The imagery is consistently startling and engaging and both the acting and story rarely anything other than the highest standard. Sadly overlooked at the Oscars and the cinema, the possibility of a resurrection on DVD has not yet expired.

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