The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 Dark Western written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, the film dramatizes the relationship between Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), focusing on the notorious events that lead up to the legendary killing. The film takes it’s narrative straight from Hansen’s novel, utilizing a narration similar to David McCullough’s narration of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, which does lend it some period authenticity.
Peter Bradshaw’s review in The Guardian noted James’s contribution to his own demise as well as the apparent paradox in the title of both novel and film:
“As his career draws to an end, Jesse James becomes aware of the impossibility of facing an increasingly vast army of sheriffs, federal agents and Pinkerton men. He senses that, inevitably, one of his gang will in any case sell him out for a fat reward. Unwilling to give the lawmen that satisfaction, James embraces his own death and subtly cultivates the mercurial attentions of the most obviously cringing and cowardly of his associates: 20-year-old Robert Ford. With the taunts and whims of a lover, he encourages Ford’s envious, murderous fascination, and grooms him as his own killer, so that his own legend will be pristine after his death. He engineers a character-assassination of Ford, and the title, knowingly, gets it precisely the wrong way around.”
The film was initially edited by director Dominik to be “a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy”, similar to the style of director Terrence Malick (who told Dominik the film was “too slow”). The studio opposed Dominik’s approach, preferring less contemplation and more action. One version of the film had a running time of more than three hours. This annoyed Warner Brothers to no end, as did the fact that Brad Pitt had it written into his contract that the studio could not change the (rather lengthy) name of the film.
The music for the film was composed by Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Both men collaborated to create the award-winning score for the Australian film The Proposition (2005). Nick Cave had a minor part in the latter part of the film. He plays a strolling balladeer in a crowded bar, where, unrecognized by the other patrons, Bob Ford has to listen to the lyrics of “The Ballad of Jesse James” as performed by Cave. This folk song refers to Ford as a coward. Ford fumes, then fires his pistol into the floor, then throws it at Cave.
In an obvious attempt to bury the film, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford opened in limited release on September 21, 2007, in 5 theaters and grossed just. $147,812 in its opening weekend. Critic Mark Kermode named the film as his best of 2007 in his end-of-year review on Simon Mayo’s BBC radio program. Kermode later wrote (correctly) that historians a hundred years from now will consider it “one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era.” Check out this great DVD HERE.