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All’s well that ends well… it took me just about five years to finally watch this, and not for lack of trying. A cursed venture it seemed like: first effort I found the James Brothers’ gang’s language too challenging to master comfortably without subtitles, but subtitles were not to be found. A year later I started watching it, all settled with beer and solitude, only to hear the phone ring ten minutes in, requiring me to stop again. Third try, maybe yet another year later, I found trouble with my media player stopping me from watching it. The first 15 or 20 minutes, including the magically lit Blue Ribbon train robbery, I almost know by heart. And now, one night in July 2012, all the stellar constellations were right: ‘twas late night, three hours until the football match, a warm night with a can of soda and another of beer. Admittedly I was suspicious what disaster could strike this time: tsunami coming in, fire alarm going off, jet lag striking me down? No… I watched it, all two and a half hours of it. And had I been suspicious that projects of such long gestation period usually do not find and end as satisfactory as one would have hoped for, that the build-up may, as it happens in life, makes promise of a climax that reality cannot keep up with… not here, not here:

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is, by all means and measures and for lack of a better word, bloody awesome! I don’t know what it is, maybe a post-Western, maybe a cinematographic essay on the loneliness that fame and notoriety often brings about. Maybe it is a family drama about aspiration, jealousy and disappointment. It fuses the long breath of a Steinbeck epic with detailed intimacy of siblings and friends. It matches its love for the beauty of wind, clouds, wheat and  grass with the best moments Terence Mallick has given us. It opens the eye to the vastness and the wide spaces of the west that may only be matched by “The Searchers”. It moves along with the pace of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” – and only if you think of this as highest praise will you be able to appreciate what director Andrew Dominik achieves here, how courageously he resists the temptation of pacing up and giving in to the fleeting pleasures of Western action. The few shoot-out scenes are unlike the ones I have seen before, they are hesitant, people are scared, insecure, and when they shoot, we know they know about the impact of such violence.

Looking at the credits, telling this story seems to have been a passion project for a big group of movie artists who had the vision to imagine how beautiful it would be: Ridley and Tony Scott, Brad Pitt and a whole range of other executive producers chipped in their names and probably purses. The cast is star-studded from top to bottom, with the story moving towards the outstanding triangle of Brad Pitt as Jesse James, Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Sam Rockwell as Robert’s brother Charley being the last men standing (honestly: if only three Actors’ Union cards were issued for the next ten years, these three could very well be my choice!). All of them deeply melancholic in their own ways and according to their own characters, all of them stranded at some point in their lives where they really are not sure what led them there and how to move on. Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, …  every character is filled to the brim with personality – and that is all the more remarkable as some of these guys really are not the reflective, talkative guys. But also the mostly silent smokers of the type of Frank James, Jesse’s brother, enrich the atmosphere with their brooding realism.

So much to be said, so many scenes to be remembered. Build an altar for DP Roger Deakins in the corner of your living room and thanks him every night for conjuring up these images, or painted them al fresco on the living room wall right away. Listen to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack on  dark night or on a sunny afternoon, and feel the melancholy seeping in. Outstanding!


  1. Nice review of a great film 🙂

    • and I just saw “Killing them softly” by the same team out this September… at last something to look forward to this summer…

      • Oh cool! Definitely look out for that one…

  2. I also loved this movie and I feel that Roger Deakins is the reason the movie plays so perfectly. He gave this western a darker feel and that is a tough thing to do well. (He did it again with True Grit). The slow pace of the movie is magical and I love to watch it over and over again. Thanks for the post.

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