Scraping the bottom of the streaming service barrel? Already rewatched all the favorites three times and out of ideas where to look next? We’ve got you covered. Every week (hopefully), Streaming Secrets will showcase an underseen or underrated movie that is available for free, or at least for no extra charge on one of the many streaming services that you probably already pay for.
Sam is pretty busy this week, so he was kind enough to let me step out of the editing background and give a shot at writing one of these. I have a feeling that coming up with my own stuff will be trickier than telling him whether or not his stuff is good.
Brad Pitt is Jesse James.
What else do I need to say? Turns out this is easy.
What Are We Watching?
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a 2007 western written and directed by Andrew Dominik. It stars a deep cast headlined by Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in the titular roles.
This movie has a really long title. From here on out, we’ll call it “Assassination,” because I don’t want to type those ten words over and over again, and you don’t want to read them. But at the same time, the title is great. It tells you everything you need to know about the movie. This movie is about (spoiler alert!) how a coward named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) killed the infamous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). When you remove the tension of “if,” you get to spend two and half hours closely examining “why.”
I don’t really know Dominik’s work outside of this. He wrote and directed Killing Them Softly, also starring Brad Pitt, which I know is good, and I’m sorry I haven’t seen yet. He also directed a few Mindhunter episodes if you’re into that sort of thing.
Roger Deakins shot this movie. As Sam admitted in the first episode, we’re not film critics. We’re just here to talk about good movies we think more of our friends should watch. So that’s a limitation we have — I don’t know shit about cinematography. As such, it’s not something we’d usually talk about. But this movie looks really good, and it’s definitely a part of the conversation around the movie. I’m calling it out because I think it’s worth your time to look for that as you watch the movie. There’s one particular shot early on that’s one of the coolest visuals I’ve ever seen. And that’s fitting, because Deakins is like, the guy. He’s a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers, Denis Villeneuve, and Sam Mendez. This one of his fifteen (15!) Oscar nominations, including two wins in the last three years for Blade Runner 2049 and 1917.
Pitt and Affleck are both fantastic. Pitt portrays everything from charming, to menacing, to contemplative. It’s everything you could possibly want out of one of our best actors portraying one of our country’s most notorious
folk-heroes folk-villains. Casey Affleck really earns his Oscar nomination. He sells the cowardice of Robert Ford, in all of the frustration and heartbreak that entails.
The movie hinges on the relationship between these two characters. James is a legend past his prime, and Ford is a kid who grew up worshiping his legend. So what happens when Ford finally meets James, only to find out that he’s just a man?
Is This Like Anything I’ve Seen Before?
No? This is a weird movie with an unique style.
This is what Wikipedia, and presumably real film critics, call a “Revisionist Western.” That means it’s about questioning the ideals and style of the traditional western while examining a more complex morality. That feels right to me. So in one sense, it’s in the vein of something like Unforgiven or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The protagonists are antiheroes, criminals with violent pasts. But at the same time, this movie is nothing like those.
Unforgiven still has the beats of a traditional western. Even though the movie recognizes that the Clint Eastwood hero of decades past has left a wake of death and deals with his attempts to reckon with that violence, it still features a big shootout where he saves the day. Even though Butch and Sundance are criminals, Redford and Newman are the personification of charisma and fun.
If you’ve played Red Dead Redemption II, you’ll notice a lot of Assassination in it. Visually, the train robbery scene plays homage to Roger Deakins’ best shot. Plot wise, both stories follow the downfall of a gang led by a charismatic leader in the aftermath of an off-screen botched robbery. And there are Pinkertons!
When you get past the western trappings, I think The Talented Mr. Ripley is the best comparison for the dynamic between Jesse James and Robert Ford. In Ripley, Matt Damon plays the titular character, a man of humble origins who befriends the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, Jude Law’s Dickie, while on a grand tour of the Mediterranean. Ripley develops a fixation on Dickie, and as the men grow close, the viewer questions the nature of that fixation. Does he want to live Dickie’s opulent lifestyle? Does he want to be Dickie? Does he want to be with Dickie? Does he want to kill Dickie? It’s a fascinating dynamic, and it relies on the specific skillset of each actor. Few actors can convince the audience that they are worthy of being the object of such a fixation, but it feels natural with Jude Law and Brad Pitt. Damon and Affleck have the range to display pathetic desperation while maintaining the audience’s sympathy.
The character of Kylo Ren also reminds me a lot of Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford. He’s obsessed with this image of a legend and is consumed by his desire to emulate him. Assassination could be sold as the Star Wars fan-fic “What if Darth Vader was still alive and Kylo Ren got to follow him around for a while.”
Maybe this is just because I watched it recently, but there’s some Hamilton in this too. The story focuses on two men, one of whom is destined to kill the other. It deals with ideas of fame and legacy and who tells your story.
Where Can We Watch it?
It’s on HBO right now, however you access that.
How Does this Qualify as Underseen?
It made $15 million on a $30 million budget. Not great!
It was received well critically, though. Affleck and Deakins got Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Best Cinematography, respectively. It has a strong following among movie people, but anecdotally, I haven’t talked about this movie with many friends.
It probably didn’t help Assassination that it was vying for attention with No Country for Old Men and 3:10 to Yuma. Those are the three best westerns of the 21st century, all in 2007! And as we discussed last week, this may be the best movie year of the century, period. There Will Be Blood, another period drama, was a critical darling. Assassination was also competing with the likes of Micheal Clayton, Zodiac, Superbad, and Juno. And even less great but very popular movies like Shooter, 300, a Spider-Man movie, a Pirates movie, an Ocean’s movie, a Pixar movie, a Diehard movie, Transformers, a Harry Potter, I Am Legend, and a Bourne movie. Cult favorites like Hot Rod and Walk Hard. An Aaron Sorkin and Tom Hanks movie with a loaded cast that nobody remembers! It was tough competition.
Any Other Reasons to Watch?
The themes of Assassination feel even more relevant now than in 2007. This is a movie about celebrity. Who better to play the original American celebrity than Brad Pitt? It questions the point where the human being gives way to the popular story. So much of the dynamic between James and Ford is about the discerning the difference between story and person. Ford grew up reading dime novels romanticizing Jesse James as an outlaw hero. He found every scrap of information he could find about Jesse and practically worshiped him. But when Ford finally meets James, he’s just a mean criminal on the decline. James scoffs at Ford’s adulation, and Ford grows to resent James for not being what he imagined. In 2020, this reads like a commentary on toxic fandom. Ford thinks he owns the story, and when Jesse James the man fails to live up to the image Ford built in his head, he kills him.
The cast is deep beyond Pitt and Affleck. Sam Rockwell plays Robert’s brother Charley. Charley is the existing gang member that helps the young Robert get his foot in the door with the fleeting James gang. Throughout the movie, Charley provides a foil to Robert’s obsession with celebrity, appealing to a sense of common loyalty while trying to get Robert to see Jesse as a human being. Rockwell gives a strong performance, portraying everything from uncertainty, to fear, to resentment.
Garrett Dillahunt has a role as a member of the late James gang. This is a key leg in his completion of the Modern Western Mount Rushmore. With roles in Assassination and No Country for Old Men on the movie side and Deadwood and Justified on the tv side, if you want to make a good western, find a way to include Dillahunt.
Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider (Mark from Parks and Rec) have significant roles as gang members, and Mary-Louise Parker (Amy from The West Wing) plays Jesse’s wife. Zooey Deschanel also shows up.
Can We Go Watch the Movie Now?
Go do it now! But make sure you have time — it’s two hours and forty minutes. Thanks to Sam (@Slapnslide) for letting me take this round and providing lots of good ideas. Let me know what you think on Twitter (@John_Mahaffey6) or in the comments. Here’s a bunch of the stuff I mentioned and where you can find them.
Directed by Dominik
Killing Them Softly — Netflix
Mindhunter (some season 2 episodes) — Netflix
Shot by Deakins
Blade Runner 2049 — Available to rent on Amazon
Sicario — Available to rent on Amazon
1917 — Available to rent on Amazon
Skyfall — Available to rent on Amazon
Basically every Coen Brothers movie, including…
No Country for Old Men — Hulu, Amazon
3:10 to Yuma — Hulu, Amazon
Unforgiven — HBO
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — Cinemax
The Talented Mr. Ripley — HBO
The Force Awakens & The Last Jedi — Disney+
Hamilton — Disney +