Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Andrew Dominik's retelling of the short life and death of Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, deserves recognition.
Andrew Dominik's retelling of the short life and death of Jesse James, starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, deserves recognition.

A shot at immortality

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck shine in The Assassination of Jess James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Westerns which seek to revise the mythology of the old American frontier are few and far between. Many have had mixed successes at the box office. Robert Benton's 1972 film, Bad Company, starring a young Jeff Bridges, painted a stark image of teenage rage in the 1860s. Clint Eastwood's philosophical take on the ravages of old age on a former gunslinger, 1992's Oscar-winning Unforgiven, redrew the Wild West in muted textures. Even Ron Howard, no stranger to the art of mainstream cinema, chose to realise 2003's The Missing, starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, with shadowy overtones evoking the presence of foreign evil.

On its release last year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quickly disappeared from cinemas. The film had already been held from release by its studio for over a year. In a movie-going climate dominated by sequels such as Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the director Andrew Dominik's thoughtful and studied retelling of the short life and death of Jesse James proved too maudlin for the tastes of most film audiences.

As the film opens, Brad Pitt's Jesse James is a ghostlike figure driven to caution and paranoia by his own notoriety. He trusts no one. By the early 1880s, he and the James Gang are in hiding. Wanted by the authorities James is a fugitive, seeking refuge from house to house. A condemned man, he spends his days waiting for the inevitable end. It is while on the run - with many of his men either dead or in jail - that James is introduced to Robert Ford, played here by a spellbinding Casey Affleck. A shy and calculating young man who has grown up reading pulp novels about the outlaw, Ford models himself on James. He in turn praises and stalks his idol, eventually winning his approval into the James Gang. From there it is a short journey to the end one day in 1882, when he shoots James in the back.

In reality, Ford's slaying of James turned him into an instant celebrity. Immediately lauded for his one moment of heroism, he took to the road with a pantomime-inspired re-enactment of his killing of James. It is here that Dominik's film takes a crucially important turn towards the prosaic. The killing of Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford wasn't the first instance of celebrity betrayal, of course: that honour would surely go to King Duncan of Scotland in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. But Dominik painstakingly builds a case for James as the first victim of modern celebrity in an era that marked the dawn of the mass media. The fate of Affleck's Ford is no better: he is doomed to a lifetime of re-enacting his one moment of glory. And as the truth about his killing of James slowly dawns on the newspaper reading public, Ford too discovers the purgatory of infamy as those who once championed his every move turn against him. In the end, he too meets a similar fate.

Dominik's directorial style bears all the poignant and often experimental hallmarks of Terrence Malick. The cinematographer Roger Deakins bathes the film in natural light. And while Affleck was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year, Pitt too deserves recognition for his unsettling portrayal of the legendary outlaw. bwazir@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National