Next week, Blonde, the latest movie from New Zealand-born Australian director Andrew Dominik, will finally hit Netflix. If Twitter is any indication, people are oh-so-ready to condemn this certain-to-be-grueling, NC-17 adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional biography of that tragic beauty Marilyn Monroe (played in the movie by Ana de Armas). Anyone who knows Dominik’s sparse filmography (his last narrative feature, the neo-noir Killing Them Softly, came out 10 years ago) also knows the man usually makes films where he puts infamous legends through the wringer. His 2000 debut Chopper starred future Hulk Eric Bana as the real-life, continually incarcerated title character, Mark “Chopper” Read.
Dominik once again went into the life and times of a notorious criminal for his 2007 follow-up, the mouthful that is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Based on Ron Hansen’s 1983 historical novel, the movie has star/producer Brad Pitt as the one-and-only Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, the “coward” that put a bullet in him.
Far from a traditional shoot-’em-up, Dominik’s Assassination tells a tale of fledgling fame and curdled hero worship in the Old West. It’s also a toxic love story between James and Ford. Ford first meets up with the robbing/murdering 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 (an all-too-brief Sam Shepard). Ford is a bona-fide fan of James, keeping a box full of articles and stories under his bed. Unfortunately, he catches his idol at a time when the robberies are few and far between, and his behavior becomes more and more erratic as James struggles to keep his infamy alive—even if it doesn’t bring him a lick of inner peace.
Pitt and Affleck give two of the most complex, complicated performances I’ve ever seen in a Western. While it almost seems like stunt casting having one of the most-talked-about movie stars of the past 30 years play one of the most-talked-about fugitives of all time, Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career. He plays James as a troubled, dysfunctional monster, a loving husband and father who could also slit your gotdamn throat. He’s a man who can pitifully confess to cold-bloodedly killing a scared gangmate one minute, then menacingly try to get information out of someone the next. He’s well-aware that being a badass is not just a full-time job. It’s a bitch to keep up.
As for Affleck (who landed his first Oscar nomination—Best Supporting Actor—for his portrayal), he takes what could’ve been a weaselly brat and makes us sympathize with this callow, determined pissant. He longs to achieve the same notoriety as James, whom Ford hoped would one day see him as an equal. Unfortunately, Ford learns the hard way that you shouldn’t meet your heroes. As he hangs around with a cruel, increasingly unhinged James (whenever they’re together, they act like a passive-aggressive couple—the callous, older abuser and the younger naïf who’s grown tired of his shit), Ford literally sees his hero live long enough to become the villain. When the assassination happens, it’s less about David taking down Goliath and more like someone taking 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, that’s not surprising. Warner Bros. quietly slipped this into theaters 15 years ago, where it languished (it only grossed half its $30 million budget) despite getting mostly positive praise from critics. Actually, it was supposed to be released a year before, but was delayed. Apparently, the studio wasn’t all that keen on Dominik’s dark, downbeat take on the Jesse James story, complete with a monotonous, off-screen voice (supplied by Hugh Ross) occasionally giving expository, novelistic narration. After the original cut was more than three hours long, the studio got Dominik to whittle it down to 160 minutes.
Dominik went full Terrence Malick on Jesse, with the movie resembling the director’s 1978 period drama Days of Heaven more than any old-school horse opera. (Similar to Heaven, you also get a lot of poetic shots of people sitting in wheat fields.) Dominik got famed cinematographer Roger Deakins (who got a Best Cinematography Oscar nod for this) to turn sequences into moving, antique photos, putting old wide-angle lenses onto the front of cameras in order to create a blurred, dreamlike effect around the edges of the frame. (Deakins later claimed to pioneer this technique, naming these combinations of lenses “Deakinizers.”)
This moody-as-hell oater definitely falls in the acid-Western category, alongside such slow, contemplative cowboy flicks as Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. (Just like those films, Jesse was also scored by historically edgy recording artists. In this case, the composers were Aussie rockers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who also scored the excellent, 2005 Australian Western The Proposition.) And like the best Westerns of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, anything by Sam Peckinpah), the antiheroes of Jesse are violent but vulnerable, desperate desperadoes who know their days as obsolete outlaws are almost over.
While Blonde may send a lot of people in an outraged tizzy, I also hope it makes some people check out Dominik’s earlier, underappreciated films—like this one.
Craig D. Lindsey is a Houston-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @unclecrizzle.