One of the most powerful and serious interpretations of the Jesse James story is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Directed by Andrew Dominik and starring Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, the film was assessed this way by critic Mark Kermode upon its release:

“….historians a hundred years from now will consider it ‘one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era’.”

This viewer believes that valuation to be correct – the film is a work of art that will grow in stature as time passes. The film is rich in what it offers in terms of acting performances, scene direction, character development and interaction, historical realism, cinematography and musical score. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford grows as a film, this writer argues, with repeated viewings.

JJ movie still

It is on the points of cinematography and score that this post wishes to draw attention. The cinematographer for the film was Roger Deakins, who also filmed the Coen Brothers’ True Grit of 2010. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis composed the score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Deakins created scenes in the film with a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. This was achieved by placing older wide-angle lenses onto the front of several cameras. Cinematographer Deakins described the effect as trying “to create the feeling of an old-time camera.

In addition to creating a haunting, meditative and moody score, soundtrack composer Nick Cave also had a small cameo in the film to sing the 19th century folk song, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” after the death of the outlaw.

Deakins’ camera work and the Cave-Ellis soundtrack come together in a hauntingly beautiful way in the following scene as the James gang prepares to conduct a train robbery. To view it is to watch and feel a cinematic painting form before your eyes and ears:

It has been reported that Brad Pitt stipulated in his contract that the studio could not alter the name of the film, which is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by American novelist Ron Hansen. Additionally, there are accounts that Jesse James’s descendants have praised the film and specifically commended the performances of Brad Pitt as James and Casey Affleck as Ford.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was originally released in September 2007 at the Venice Film Festival, the Deauville Festival of American Cinema in France and the Toronto International Film Festival before a limited US release on September 21st, 2007. The film would receive an Academy Award nomination for its cinematography.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)


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