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Feature: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Just Like Jesse James

Brad Pitt as  Jesse James

Stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck and director Andrew Dominik get under the skin of two Wild West legends…

As you might expect from a Western about one of America’s most famous outlaws, it left its film makers in rebellious mood. Take the mouthful of a title, almost as long as its two-and-a-half-hour running time. “It was the title of the book [by Ron Hansen],” shrugs director Andrew Dominik. “It’s a typical 19th Century title. Some people think the movie is too long, the title is too long. But we liked the title. There seemed to be no reason to change it.” Brad Pitt, who produces the film and stars as Jesse James, concurs. “Me personally, I’m fond of the title too because the film deals with the dissection of that myth of Jesse James, and that myth of Robert Ford, the coward. I think it’s exquisite.”

While the title may be something of a giveaway regarding the action to come, their devotion to it shows just how faithful the film makers intended to be when it came to Hansen’s historical text, which recounts the James gang in their final months. “My whole exposure to Jesse James comes from the book,” explains Dominik. “The main thing I was trying to do was translate Ron Hansen’s image of those people into a movie. Everything in the film is historically accurate. Every event that takes place… there are some minor discrepancies if you go back to the source material but it’s pretty much straight ahead. But I guess Jesse James as a character didn’t particularly interest me until I read the book.”

While Pitt doesn’t go so far as to say that, he confesses he knew little of his character before beginning the film. “I wasn’t so familiar with the legend, other than the Robin Hood aspect of it all,” he reveals, which might seems strange given he was born in Oklahoma and raised in Missouri – Jesse James’s old stomping ground, in other words. “But I am quite familiar, of course, with the area, the inflections, the canter and the cadence,” he adds, “and it gave me great pleasure because I hadn’t been able to do something that was a tribute to that area before.” Typically, however, the movie was not actually filmed there, with the shoot taking place in Canada.

Shot in late 2005, the film endured a turbulent post-production period. For starters, Dominik was forced to wait for a whole year to shoot some extra exterior material, due to the fact that a large portion of the film takes place outside in autumn and winter. At least Pitt, with his production company Plan B behind the film, was on hand to support Dominik and the film, which morphed through an extraordinary 40 cuts before it reached its final one. “I actually liked the first cut, which was four-and-a-half hours long,” says the actor, “but we didn’t think people would have a lot of tolerance for it!”

Despite the fact that Pitt won the Best Actor prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival for the role, the US critics have already been divided about the film and it’s - even now - sizable running time. The LA Times’s Kenneth Turan, for example, called it ‘indulgent’ and ‘unwieldy’, though Pitt is obviously not in agreement. “This is a very complex, complicated film, a film that is not a part of the current zeitgeist,” he argues. “To me, it’s a throwback to some of our greater films of the Seventies. I think it’s a delicious film that sits and breathes like good wine. It is, ultimately, my favourite kind of storytelling.”

by James Mottram

Read the full interview in
Film Review (Nov)

Photo © Warner Bros Pictures
Feature © Visual Imagination 2008. Not for reproduction

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Film Review (Nov), see below for ordering options
Film Review (Nov)
#689, November 2007
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