Andrew Dominik’s lyrical Western has carved out its rightful place as a modern classic. Info
The year 2007 was an exceptionally strong one for film and at the time, two Western-influenced behemoths dominated: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men. In the shadows of those two releases was a quieter, more contemplative film operating on the fringes of traditional Western filmmaking, and leaving a mark just as impressive: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Intentionally somber and quietly suspenseful, the film tells the story of Robert Ford (an Oscar-nominated turn from Casey Affleck), an admirer-turned-acolyte of the legendary Jesse James (Brad Pitt, delivering a career-best performance). Ford and James become close, then inextricably entwined, and eventually the pair become increasingly suspicious of the other’s motivations, leading to a climactic final, shared moment.
Despite generally positive reviews from critics, audiences at the time of the film's release never fully embraced it. Those who latched onto the film's glacial, cerebral inclinations would leave screenings feeling wounded, and those who didn’t, endlessly frustrated. But everyone who's seen it seems to agree on one thing, which is that it's one of the most beautifully shot films of our time. Roger Deakins’ cinematography provides a masterclass in lighting, framing, and blocking, granting those images genuine staying power. Since the film’s release, Deakins’ work on The Assassination… has been taught in film classes, topped Greatest Cinematography lists, and is frequently cited as the already legendary DP’s best work.
Similarly, the film’s score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (both of legendary Australian outfit Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, and Warren a member of the instrumental trio Dirty Three) is routinely referenced as one of the greatest of this early century. Wind chimes, piano, dusty guitars, and searching string melodies all congeal into melancholic elegies, tenderly expanding the intensely fractured relationship at the film’s core. Amplifying the film’s simmering intensity, Cave and Ellis’ work provides a painfully acute sense of the film as a subdued and deeply empathetic reverie.
Split apart into individual components, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is as impressive—and frequently as audacious—as its title’s length. Taken in as a whole, the experience is otherworldly. The Chicago Film Society is bringing the film to the Chazen as part of a collaborative series that runs through UW Cinematheque's fall season. —Steven Spoerl