It opened on five screens, made around $150,000 on opening weekend and trousered a total US gross of $4m – from a budget of $30m. Make no mistake – this movie, like its subject, is an outlaw. Dense, difficult, murky, notorious, left to brood in the shadows while lesser films guzzle up the limelight. But despite its commercial flatline, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is very much alive – a hoary story from America’s fledgeling frontier that’s swirling with comment on modern times.
As lectured in a syrupy, made-for-TV doc (the disc’s sole extra), James was a farm boy who turned freedom-fighter after his ranch was ravaged by Union militia during the Civil War. When the Southern cause was lost, he kept up the lifestyle: brutal signature robberies hyped (by others and himself) as raffish banditry.
So that’s self-promotion, publicity-milking, political spin, celebrity as currency, fame for fame’s sake, the misguided glamour of infamy… It couldn’t be more now. And yet no one bothered to see it...
They missed what was, pound for pound, the most nourishing cinema trip of 2007: punchy, precision storytelling; lyrical writing (“Insomnia stained his eyes like soot”) and luminous, honey-glazed photography from the Coens’ DoP Roger Deakins. Director Andrew Dominik’s unhurried takes unfurl aching emotional panoramas, inviting all but the most chronic remote-twitcher to settle back and sip the intoxicating imagery.
All the ‘action’ is there in the infernal whirring behind Pitt’s misted eyes. It’s a supreme performance: haunted and hunted, soul crumbling from the slow-motion panic of guilt and paranoia. But as his stalker/successor Ford, Casey Affleck is nothing short of miraculous: a wolf in weasel’s clothing, eyeing his quarry with the crazed craving of seducer, soul-stealer, redeemer (“I believe I’m destined for great things!”).
So if you’re still resisting the prospect of a lengthy meditation on the symbiotic relationship between false idols and their besotted worshippers, now’s the time to submit – in a fidget-friendly environment.
No. It isn’t ‘boring’. It’s languid, elegiac filmmaking with brains and breadth. Park that lust for quick-fix kicks, drift into Dominik’s richly realised world and do your bit to help this criminally unloved crim-flick to a Shawshank-style DVD rebirth.