The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a very rare thing – an arthouse movie released by a major studio.
Based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 book, Brad Pitt stars as the infamous US outlaw in what is a slow, revisionist Western directed by Andrew Dominik. Think McCabe and Mrs Miller crossed with Days of Heaven mixed with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
So how did Warner Bros end up financing and releasing it? Brad Pitt was a huge fan of Dominik’s first film – the brilliant Chopper – so when the director suggested adapting Hansen’s book, production went ahead.
It soon became apparent that this was not the film the studio was expecting – the release was delayed by up to a year after the star, director and studio were at loggerheads over the final cut.
When it eventually got released last Autumn, it had it had a number of admirers but didn’t do much busines. Despite a few award nominations (Brad Pitt won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival) it will probably go down as a film the beancounters at Burbank regret making.
My feelings on seeing at the cinema were mixed. The dazzling technical achievements of the film and excellent performances were offset by the frustrating sense that this wasn’t the finished product. The narrative seemed too disjointed and although some people complained about the 160 minute running time, I would be keen to see a longer version that plugged some of the narrative gaps. The result was a film and story that just wasn’t as involving as it should have been.
But despite those problems, there is much to admire here. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is some of the best of his career as he manages to depict both the grime and beauty of the American West. This doesn’t really look like any other Western and some of the individual shots – such as the train robbery sequence – are breathtaking.
Added to this are some excellent performances. Brad Pitt doesn’t always get to show his acting chops, but here he gives his role just the right amount of charm, ruthlessness and mystery. Casey Affleck is equally good as the protege who betrays his idol, with his awkward deference masking a steely ambition. The supporting cast, which includes Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Mary Louise-Parker and Sam Shepherd, is also very good.
Disappointingly, the DVD is bereft of any significant extras. Although the 2-disc collector’s edition contains a beautifully illustrated 44-page booklet, the only extra is on the second disc. It is a 30 minute documentary called “Death of an Outlaw”, which examines the life and death of the real Jesse James and includes interviews with all the key cast and filmmakers.
Sadly, there is no commentary and although Dominik has said he is willing to do a director’s cut at some point in the future, I have a feeling that won’t see the light of day for a while. But despite that it remains a film worth revisiting on DVD becuase what’s good here is very, very good indeed.