Brad Pitt started to show ‘great actor’ potential with 1993’s ‘Kalifornia’, and followed that with excellent turns in two David Fincher classics (‘Se7en’ and ‘Fight Club’) and an Oscar-nommed turn in Terry Gilliam’s ’12 Monkeys’.
But he sealed the deal with ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, Andrew Dominik’s film adaptation of Ron Hansen’s great novel.
Pitt’s turn as the famous American outlaw and folk hero is as stunning as it is terrifying and surprising, with Pitt producing the film and putting his heart and soul into enabling the film to be made.
Most Hollywood studios would have hit the panic button if a director said they wanted to adapt Hansen’s sweeping, poetic epic novel and stay faithful to the novel. It’s beautifully written and explores the myth of Jesse James and his assassin whilst exploring the imperfections and faults of the two men.
The idea of slow burning visual poem and American Western character study without a John Wayne-style character to root for or epic gun battles would not have appealed to almost all of Hollywood circles.
But credit to Brad Pitt, whose company Plan B bought the rights to the book and signed ‘Chopper’ director Andrew Dominik to adapt the book and direct. If people were wondering why Pitt chose Australian filmmaker Dominik to write and direct the film, they should watch ‘Chopper’ again. They can be viewed as companion pieces. Dominik himself stated that the film is “a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy,” and that description could quite easily be used to describe ‘Chopper’.
The casting of Robert Ford was essential. Initially it was down to either Casey Affleck or Shia LaBeouf, but LaBeouf was deemed too young to play Ford. It was a wise decision. Affleck was Oscar nominated for his portrayal of Ford, but that does not do enough credit to his performance. It is truly mesmerising. Ford is a dream character to play for an actor who is looking for a challenge. A socially awkward dreamer, Ford idolises and hero-worships Jesse James but grows disillusioned with his hero when James’ erratic behavior and paranoia cause the 19-year-old Ford to question the dime-store book representation of James that he has grown up with.
The rose-tinted spectacles come off when Ford is given the chance to make a name for himself by taking James down, making a deal with the American government to do so in exchange for a full pardon.
The assassination scene is one of the greatest scenes in the last decade in film, and should be studied at film schools across the world. It is heartbreakingly sad, with James orchestrating his own demise after watching his children playing from his living room window. He takes his gun belt off and turns to a painting, saying: “That picture’s awful dusty”. He climbs onto a chair to clean it, and looks into the glass of the framed picture. Robert Ford and his brother Charley are standing behind him, guns raised. Robert Ford takes the opportunity to kill him and his shot at fame.
It is an incredibly powerful scene, nailed in tone and style by Dominik, and acted to perfection by Pitt, Affleck and the always terrific Sam Rockwell (as Charley).
Ford expects rapturous applause and American people and history to smile on him, but instead he becomes the villain in the ever-growing legend of Jesse James. Now a hate figure across America, Ford is driven to alcoholism and depression, and the final third of the film captures his decline beautifully, until he himself is slain.
Anyone who has ever had doubts about Pitt as a ‘serious’ actor should watch this film, and consider the passion that went into the film’s production. It takes a lot of passion to create something that you know will not be a financial success. He should be commended for taking such a risk.
I am so glad he did. It’s one of the best films of the decade.
Mark Kermode named the film as his best of 2007 in his end-of-year review on Simon Mayo’s BBC radio programme, and later wrote that historians a hundred years from now will consider it “one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era.”
He’s 100% correct.
MY BELOVED FLOP STATS:
BUDGET: $30 MILLION (ESTIMATED)
GROSS REVENUE: $15,001,776