The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford heralded the talent of Andrew Dominik

Next week, Blond, the latest film from New Zealand-born Australian director Andrew Dominik, will finally arrive on Netflix. If Twitter is any indication, people are so ready to condemn this certain-to-be-gritty NC-17 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional biography of tragic beauty Marilyn Monroe (played in the film by Ana de Armas). Anyone familiar with Dominik’s sparse filmography (his last narrative feature, the neo-noir Killing them softly, released 10 years ago) also knows that the man usually makes movies where he spins infamous legends. His debut in 2000 Chopper starred future Hulk Eric Bana as real-life, continuously incarcerated lead character Mark “Chopper” Read.

Dominik stepped into the life and times of a notorious criminal once again for his 2007 follow-up, The Bite That Is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 historical novel, the film stars/producer Brad Pitt as the one and only Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, the “coward” who shot him.

Far from a traditional shoot-’em-up, Dominik’s Assassination tells the story of rising fame and curdled hero worship in the Old West. It’s also a toxic love story between James and Ford. Ford first encounters the robbery/murder legend when he and other peckerwoods (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt and Paul Schneider, among them) are hired to rob a train with James and his older brother Frank (a too-brief Sam Shepard). Ford is a bonafide fan of James, keeping a box full of articles and stories under his bed. Unfortunately, he catches his idol at a time when thefts are rare, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic as James struggles to keep his infamy alive, even if it doesn’t bring him some inner peace.

Pitt and Affleck give two of the most intricate and convoluted performances I’ve ever seen in a western. Although it almost sounds like a stunt casting, one of the most talked about movie stars of the past 30 years plays one of the most talked about fugitives of all time, Pitt gives one best performances of his career. He plays James as a troubled and dysfunctional monster, a loving husband and father who could also slit your throat. This is a man who can pitifully confess to killing a frightened gang member in cold blood one minute, then menacingly try to get information from someone the next. He’s well aware that being a badass isn’t just a full-time job. She’s a slut to follow.

As for Affleck (who picked up his first Oscar nomination – Best Supporting Actor – for his portrayal), he takes what could have been a brat and makes us sympathize with this callous and determined piss. He aspires to achieve the same notoriety as James, whom Ford hoped would one day see him as an equal. Unfortunately, Ford learns the hard way not to meet his heroes. As he hangs out with a cruel and increasingly unhinged James (every time they’re together they act like a passive-aggressive couple – the callous aggressor and the naive youngest who’s fed up with his shit) , Ford literally sees his hero live long enough to become the villain. When the assassination occurs, it’s less about David taking down Goliath and more about someone pulling a wild, wounded animal out of its misery. Once he starts making a name for himself as the guy who wiped out Jesse James, Ford becomes just as notorious – and just as miserable – as the man he once adored.

If you’ve never heard of this movie until now, it’s no surprise. Warner Bros. quietly slipped that into theaters 15 years ago, where it languished (it only grossed half of its $30 million budget) despite mostly positive critical acclaim. In fact, it was supposed to come out a year before, but was delayed. Apparently, the studio wasn’t very interested in Dominik’s dark, fast-paced take on Jesse James’ story, with a monotonous off-screen voice (provided by Hugh Ross) occasionally giving an explanatory, romantic narration. After the original cut was over three hours long, the studio asked Dominik to cut it down to 160 minutes.

Dominik filled Terrence Malick on Jessewith the film resembling the director’s 1978 period drama sky days more than any old fashioned horse opera. (Similar to heaven, you also get lots of poetic shots of people sitting in wheat fields.) Dominik asked famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won a Best Cinematography Oscar for it) to turn footage into old photos and moving pictures, putting old wide-angle lenses on the front of the cameras to create a blurry, dreamlike effect around the edges of the frame. (Deakins later claimed to pioneer this technique, naming these lens combinations “Deakinizers”.)

This moody rogue definitely falls into the acid western category, alongside cowboy flicks as slow-paced and contemplative as Robert Altman McCabe and Mrs. Miller and that of Jim Jarmusch Dead man. (Just like those movies, Jesse was also scored by historically edgy artists. In this case, the composers were Australian rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who also composed the excellent 2005 Australian western Proposal.) And like the best Westerns of the 60s and 70s (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidanything by Sam Peckinpah), the anti-heroes of Jesse are violent but vulnerable, desperate desperadoes who know their days as obsolete outlaws are almost over.

Whereas Blond may send a lot of people into an outraged tizzy, I also hope it inspires some people to watch Dominik’s previous and underrated movies, like this.



Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizle.