Search icon

Movies & TV

21st Sep 2022

One of the best films nobody went to see turns 15 years old this week

"One of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era."

Rory Cashin

If you haven’t already seen it, then you need to rectify that immediately.

Released in cinemas on 21 September 2007, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford was a bit of a strange beast.

It arrived in a bit of a down period in terms of the Western revival, a decade and a half after Unforgiven, but a few years before True Grit, Django Unchained or Bone Tomahawk.

It did arrive the same year as No Country For Old Men, the western disguised as a pitch-black thriller (or is that the other way around?), but where that movie had Javier Bardem’s bowl haircut and brain-mushing cattle-gun, Jesse James sold itself on nothing more than its own bleak beauty.

There was a lot about the film that seemed to turn audiences off before they even went to see it: that unforgivably long title fed into the bum-numbing run time in excess of two-and-a-half-hours, and from a writer/director who had previously only given us the brilliant-but-uncomfortable Eric Bana-starring biopic Chopper.

The movie sat on a shelf for almost two years after it was completed, with the producers having apparently no idea how to sell it. Despite being made with a relatively small budget of just $30 million, it wound up making barely half of that in the worldwide box office.

For those who made the effort though, all they had to see was the opening train heist to know that they were about to witness something truly magnificent…

Clip via vive le cinéma

Nearly everything you need to know about the movie is represented perfectly within that one scene.

An incredible all-star cast including Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepherd, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Michael Parks, Ted Levine and Paul Schneider, all of whom give some of the best performances of their entire careers.

That eye-piercingly beautiful cinematography by Roger Deakins – the eye behind the likes of Skyfall, The Big Lebowski, Sicario and Blade Runner 2049 – that continuously comes up with new and innovative ways to ensure that this has the right to claim to be the most beautiful western ever made.

Once the music kicks in as the train arrives, you recognise the incomparable talent that is Nick Cave, both hugely lush and full of impending sadness and doom, in that manner that only Cave can evoke.

And finally there is Andrew Dominik’s script and direction, taking a famous story about a famous character, and turning it into a very modern take on the intoxicating power of celebrity, and the deconstruction of myths that build up around anyone we might define as a personal hero.

Pitt is both very charismatic and indefinably scary as Jesse James, having a tough time equating the man he is with the man the world perceives him to be, while Affleck is magnetic as the more-than-slightly obsessed Robert Ford, who wants nothing more than to be seen as an equal by his hero.

To be fair, much like the title, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford doesn’t exactly scream “FUN!” to the audience, as it does meander towards its own depressing, albeit inescapable conclusion (spoilers: if you haven’t seen the film, then you probably shouldn’t have read the title).

However, just like the title, the sense of scope is almost oppressive: in the vast grandeur of the Old West, every word and every action by every man contain enough impact and influence to be heard through the ages, and you either become a legend like James, or essentially get written out of history, like Ford.

Unfortunately, the movie almost went the way of Ford, tanking in the cinemas and failing to win either of its two nominations – for Affleck and Deakins – at the Oscars.

Thanfully, many still fight the good fight to make sure it goes the way of James. Mark Kermode wrote in The Guardian that “historians a hundred years from now will consider it ‘one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era’.”. In 2016, a group of international journalists named it among the 100 best movies made since the year 2000. Empire Magazine listed it on their Top 500 Movies Of All Time feature earlier this year.

And now, on its 15th anniversary, it is fully deserving of the attention and love it never received in the first place.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, one of the greatest movies ever made that nobody went to see, is available to watch at home right now on Apple TV, Google Play, Rakuten TV and the Sky Store.

Clip via Movieclips Trailer Vault

LISTEN: You Must Be Jokin’ with Aideen McQueen – Faith healers, Coolock craic and Gigging as Gaeilge