#2 – Top Movies of 2007
“I look at my red hands and my mean face…and I wonder ’bout that man that’s gone so wrong.”
Rated R. Out on DVD. Written and Directed by Andrew Dominik. Starring Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider and Sam Shepard.
Overlooked during its theatrical release and overshadowed by the other critically acclaimed Westerns of the year, the superior The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford deserves a much wider look from the public now that it has been released on DVD. The cumbersome title, the long run time (2 hrs., 40 minutes), and the slow pace of the film made it no surprise that it hasn’t been embraced like There Will Be Blood or No Country For Old Men, which is a shame because it accomplishes what both of the other films set out to do but fell short of — combine interesting thematic elements with a great story and accomplished filmmaking.
Using the true-life story of the James gang to frame the narrative, director Andrew Dominik has crafted a Malick-like rumination on the nature of fame and infamy, the desire to achieve those things and drawbacks they bring. A large part of the film focuses on fraternal bonds and relationships and what can hold or break them apart. Because we know the ending from the title, the plot is less important than how the characters get to that point and their motivations behind it. The gradual transformations that Jesse James and Robert Ford undertake during the lead-up to their eventual confrontation are what make the movie so successful.
The film begins with the James gang reduced to Jesse (Brad Pitt), his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and a bunch of ragtag local boys they’ve recruited to pull off one more heist. By this point, their exploits have already become legendary, and to even be included with the James brothers is a thrill that Robert (Casey Affleck) cannot quite comprehend on his first day after being recruited by his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell). The film follows Robert’s graduation from lackey to one of Jesse’s right-hand men as well as the exploits of the other members of the gang.
Affleck received an Oscar nomination for his role (as a supporting actor — which is bullshit, because he is the lead of the film), and he is great and really brings Ford to life, making him sympathetic despite his weaknesses. His development as a character is so subtle and Affleck deserves a lot of credit. Rockwell is very solid as the congenial but dopey Charley, and Paul Schneider has a couple of great moments as the unfortunately named Dick Liddil.
But the movie belongs to Pitt, who gives the best performance of a really underrated career. He’s been in some of my favorite movies and given some strong performances, but because he’s *Brad Pitt* he doesn’t really get any credit for being a good actor. Because of his superstar status amongst the tabloids, it’s hard to watch him in a movie and not see him merely as *Brad Pitt* (sort of like in Michael Clayton, where it’s just George Clooney playing George Clooney). In this film, though, Pitt does the improbable and really becomes Jesse James. You watch the film and you think of him as Jesse rather than thinking of him as *Brad Pitt* playing Jesse, which is an accomplishment. He is equal parts frightening and sincere and he gives you an idea of why his men looked up to him so much. There is one scene with Pitt & Garret Dillahunt, playing another member of the gang, which is a powerful showcase of his work.
Jesse James is slow, long and meandering, but I never found it less than enthralling, thanks in part to the beautiful cinematography, deservingly the front-runner to win the Oscar, and the score by Nick Cave. It is not a film for everyone, and though I definitely recommend it now that it’s out on DVD, check out the spoiler-free trailer below to get an idea of the tone and style of it. It truly is a beautiful film and well worth seeing.