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The (Other) iTunes $0.99 Movie of the Week: ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’

Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard-earned dollar.

The featured $0.99 movie this week is a little action/thriller by the name of American Assassin. I watched the trailer, and I can’t really fathom exactly why this movie exists, let alone how talents like Michael Keaton and director Michael Cuesta got involved in it. Needless to say, I had zero desire to sit through that one. Which was just fine, ’cause one of the greatest Westerns ever made just happened to be available in the ‘Movies You Might’ve Missed’ section of iTunes. So …

This week, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck dissect outlaw mythology in the meditative anti-Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Do You Want to Be like Me? Or Do You Want to Be Me?

After idolizing Jesse James (Pitt) for much of his life, young Robert Ford (Affleck) suddenly finds himself in the presence of his idol, and taking part in some of the nefarious deeds that Jesse and the James Gang had become legends for. As Ford spends more time with Jesse, he begins to see that the mortal man before him doesn’t quite fit his own augmented vision of the bandit legend, and a deep-seated resentment begins to take hold. One that proves to be the undoing of one of history’s greatest outlaws. Welcome to Andrew Dominik’s haunting, harrowing deconstruction of Western mythos, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Jesse james

He Suspected No One in History Had Ever so Publicly Recapitulated an Act of Betrayal

For the record, that last bit of information is no spoiler. The title to Andrew Dominik’s taut, ethereal Western is meant to be taken quite literally. So yes, Robert Ford does eventually kill his idol Jesse James in the course of Dominik’s abstraction of a narrative, so if you think you’re being corralled into a classic Western whodunit full of daring heists, heroic cowboy moments, and six-shooting thrills, well, think again. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which I will heretofore be referring to as The Assassination of Jesse James because the one genuine problem with this film is its rangy title) is not that sort of Western.

That’s not to say that those sorts of things don’t happen in Dominik’s film. They do. There’s actually a nighttime train heist in this film that’s without question one of the most beautifully visualized and executed heist scenes in the history of moving pictures. But even if the scene paints the character of James in a particularly iconic light, it’s hardly the shoot ’em up heist you’d expect in a Western. In fact, Dominik uses the moment to emphatically undercut any sense of overt myth-making by refusing to let its icon be one. Rather, he paints James as a tragically flawed and unflinchingly violent, yet uncommonly skilled/charismatic thief. Sure, he’s far from a “common” thief, but he’s a thief no less.

Such is the crux of Dominik’s film. Even as iconic Western moments seem to unfurl behind the film’s even more iconic Western imagery, The Assassination of Jesse James staunchly refuses let any singular moment play as iconic. Rather, each painstakingly realized scene seems pared down to the essential elements that form it (i.e. sound, image, and character) with the express purpose of limiting iconography. As such, the film plays more like a collective memory of historical events than an actual recounting of history. One that has no particular point of view, no concern for moral judgement or lecturing, and no affinity for such classic Western tropes as good guys taking down bad guys, damsels in distress or showdowns at dawn.

It may sound crazy, but the film’s resolute disregard for those tropes is what makes it more of a Western than pretty much any Western that came before or after. After all, in absence of overt iconography, Dominik and Co. found themselves free to do what most Westerns fail to do, tell a genuinely immersive tale of life in the outlaw age. That they present that tale as a dreamily narrated fable bolstered by Roger Deakins’ illusory photography, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ delicate, ghostly original score, and powerhouse performances from Pitt, Affleck, and the rest of the film’s ridiculously stacked cast (Sam Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, Zooey Deschanel, Garret Dillahunt, and Jeremy Renner amongst them) is what should’ve made The Assassination of Jesse James a legendary cinematic experience.

Somehow that didn’t happen. The film was released to little fanfare back in 2008 and (save for a couple of Oscar nominations for Deakins and Affleck), it quickly faded into relative obscurity. While that fact is the sort of tragedy that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (seriously, how did the film get released with that ungainly title?) would almost certainly undercut, it’s one that cinema lovers young and old need to alter as soon as possible. And there’s no time better than now.

Jesse james

Worth It?

Did I mention that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the greatest Westerns ever made? It is. It also happens to be one of the greatest films ever made in any genre. Period. So rather than ask me if it’s worth the paltry rental price of one dollar, you should probably ask yourself how you can afford to not find out if I’m full of s**t or not. Just FYI – I’m not. But you really should find that out for yourself.

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