Episode 59: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Film chosen by Patrick, introduced by Devlin

As mentioned in the episode, Patrick, Gali and I saw this film together back in Leeds in 2007 during its cinema release. It’s a movie-going experience that I rank extremely high in my all-time most memorable – a film that buried itself in my psyche at perhaps exactly the right time. This was towards the end of our 3 years together at film school, and studying cinematography as my major, Roger Deakins was already a rock star to me. I’d study lighting plans, read up on lenses and camera equipment I could never hope to lay hands on at our cheerful but underfunded university, and read lengthy technical essays to fathom how light, focus, colour and composition could, in the right hands, inspire real emotional responses, and how the staid mechanics of film making, of long days and paperwork and styrofoam cups of weak coffee can be transformed in to something completely immersive.

And nothing I’d seen until that time struck me quite like the beautiful Blue Cut robbery sequence. Potentially, for viewers, reviewers, and the film’s studio alike, the scene creates a high water mark that stains the rest of the film. I disagree, but to an extent can sympathise (to a very, very small extent) with the Warner Bros. executives who believed that snagging a Jesse James Western starring a still-hot, Oceans Twelve/Thirteen-era Brad Pitt, and hoping to curry favour with the budding producer as he launched his Plan B label, was an all-around smart business decision and fairly guaranteed a bit of decent box office. And, when presented with a film running somewhere north of 3 hours, featuring only one robbery (one which unfolds at an extremely stately pace and ends in partial failure) and a whole lot of deep, deep misery, they balked. But my sympathies, weak as they are, are further curtailed by:
a) these same executives surely knowing what script they greenlit
b) my (spoilers) continuing admiration and love for this film
c) Warner Bros.’ subsequent burial of a film which they tried, and failed, to butcher in the edit

That this film has found a cult is deserving. That it was ever going to be a crowdpleaser is ridiculous – it’s too niche, too attuned to a specific frequency that might sound like incredible music to some, and nails on a chalk board to others. Accusations of pretension are difficult to counter except in taking umbrage with the specific use of that word – it suggests that there is nothing to back up its grandiosity and weighty speechifying. Your mileage may, will, vary with this one – it certainly did in our episode among the panel, but if nothing else we hope to perhaps shine a light, however small, on a film which most likely slipped below a lot of radars on release and continues to occupy a strangely shaded corner of the filmography of some major acting talents. That it contains a performance by Brad Pitt which for me at least ranks as his best should hopefully justify that intrigue, even if I’m all-too-aware that 160 minutes is a lot to ask of people’s time in taking a chance on a film largely deemed a failure.

Finally, this fantastic video essay by Scout Tafoya certainly elucidates why this film resonates with me, and I’m sure many people who find themselves under its spell.

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