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{guest post} 5 Reasons to Love The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Today’s post is guest-written by smart-film-guy and frequent-Gimme-Some-Film-commenter David Huffman. David is a full-time writer, producer, and Chief Creative Officer for Capstone Entertainment Group. Like them on Facebook; they’ve got some cool stuff in the works! In talking about the new Andrew Dominik film Killing Them Softly, I mentioned that I didn’t remember loving his 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Turns out, the film is one of David’s favorites; I asked him to tell me why. Then I put the film at the top of my queue. Take it away, David!

The Top 5 Reasons The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Is One of My Top 5 All-time Movies (And Could Also Be Yours)

1. There’s nothing wrong with it.

I am aware that “You made no mistakes” isn’t the highest praise, unless you’re competing in the olympics or a spelling bee. Or I guess if you’re a surgeon. But it’s a good place to start.

I have yet to hear anyone file a real complaint against the film, other than, “It’s too long.”

Okay, my mom’s official review was, “Weird.” Fair enough.

But no one can say the music is bad, or that any of the acting is stilted, or that this section of the story is confusing, or that the costumes weren’t authentic. Because it all works. And I can’t for the life of me find a story thread, character arc, or even a sequence to trim, in order to shave the 160-minute runtime. James Cameron’s Titanic runs 194 minutes, Avatar 162 minutes, and those are two of the highest-grossing films of all time at the box office. I don’t buy that The Assassination… is too long.

2. So much is right about it.

I can base my recommendation to watch this film on the facts—the empirical evidence that permeates this all-star creative team. Aside from Andrew Dominik, who had previously only helmed one indie film called Chopper, which is an incredible piece, with an amazing performance by Eric Bana, let’s see who else contributed:

Roger Deakins – Director of Photography (The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall, the Coen Bros. movies & every other film you love going back to the ‘70s)  This is one of the most beautifully shot films ever put on screen.

Ridley and Tony Scott – Producer & Executive Producer (We all know these guys, right?)

Cast – Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation) and the amazing character actor Garet Dillahunt (You may have seen him in the recent Looper).  Zooey Deschanel even sneaks onto the screen and manages to not be annoying.

The chemistry, the tension, the fears and desires and emotion that all of these talents inject into the world and its rich characters make this a film one doesn’t simply watch. One absorbs it.

3. It complicates the legend without ruining it.

Like Spielberg does in Lincoln, The Assassination of Jesse James… shows that the person was a legend, yes, but also a human. And while doing this, it in no way diminishes the legend. It wonderfully complicates it. Enriches it. I prefer the complicated versions of history, and Dominik’s vision of Jesse James is one of the most compelling, and haunting, of any legend I’ve seen on screen.

4. It was made amidst great adversity.

This one is a very long story. Here is a brief synopsis:

At one point, Ridley Scott and Brad Pitt edited their own version of the film—the short, action-packed version Warner Bros. wanted to see. And the test audience responded with a resounding…


Warner Bros. went with Dominik’s version.

When a film gets edited without the director’s involvement, you know there is adversity, and some of our best films come from adversity (See Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope). On the flipside, some of our worst films come from lack of adversity. (See Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menaaactually, don’t. Just take my word for it.)

I believe many of the intangibles that make us fall in love with most of our favorite movies come from the passion and fire and grit it took to just get the thing made in the face of great obstacles.

5. The payoff.

Sports are pretty popular. We like watching our favorite sports teams compete because we put great stakes into our hope for them to win. I believe the film experience should be no different. I don’t mean the hero, or main character, always has to “win” per se, but the film should. A film “wins” with its payoff, like a game-winning, buzzer-beating three-pointer, or a bottom-of-the-ninth home run. Even if the hero dies, like in…well…this movie. And Lincoln for that matter.

Jesse James pays off emotionally for me. Every single time. Not with tears, like Good Will Hunting. Not with laughter, like Groundhog Day. Not with joy, no, elation, like The Shawshank Redemption. But with breathlessness. Yes, it’s the old cliché, “It takes my breath away.”

This film methodically, slowly, pushes me toward the edge of a very high cliff until, at the end, I finally cross the threshold and drop into the open air.

Then at the last second, it grabs the back of my shirt, and I’m able to breathe again.

And like a child to his dad, who just did something cool, I say, “Do it again.”

What films make you say “Do it again”?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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5 comments on “{guest post} 5 Reasons to Love The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

  1. Ok, this totally made me add this one to my queue. Especially intrigued by the adventures in editing.

    Thanks for guest posting, David!

  2. Nice one, David! I first saw this film with you & loved it. And your line — “Then at the last second, it grabs the back of my shirt, and I’m able to breathe again.” — perfect.

    I agree that this film is hauntingly beautiful and I never once questioned its length or its believability. From the opening moments to the credits, I was there. Definitely a *sigh*-worthy film.

  3. I liked this film very much when I saw it. I would describe it as “atmospheric” rather than “long”–it delivers a palpable sense of place and time and lets the story unfold at a pace appropriate for that place and time. Beautifully, evocatively filmed and compellingly acted.

  4. First, the sentence “Zooey Deschanel even sneaks onto the screen and manages to not be annoying” makes this post.

    Second, the first time I saw this film I think I quit early for boredom. And this is coming from a #1 Brad Pitt fan. But I shall reconsider and watch it once again.

    Third, my most re-watched movies of my adulthood (basically, not going to count all the Chris Farley & Adam Sandler movies that I watched a million times in my youth) are A River Runs Through It, Lost in Translation, and The Life Aquatic. Can’t get enough.

  5. There are no heroes in this movie. Everyone had an agenda and got what they deserved. This movie in one word is poetic. The length means nothing. I grew up in Missouri and even have a relative who built Jessie James’ childhood home in 1822.

    The only thing in this movie that I may have a problem with is it is like it states Jessie wanted Bob to kill him, or its not how one imagines an outlaw going to his grave by turning his back on someone he really didn’t seem to trust. Maybe, finally Jessie was trying to give Bob the be like him kind of glory, but we’ll never really know the truth of why Jessie would be preoccupied with a picture to die so easily. Maybe Jessie was tired of hiding.