10 days/10 films #1: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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I saw this movie by myself on a dreary autumn afternoon in 2007, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. The screening was something I had experienced only a few times before or since: one of those trips to the movies where you can tell, minutes in, that you’re watching something important and life-changing.

I believe I went to a party that night, and couldn’t stop talking about the movie. Roger Deakins wasn’t a name that I knew well at the time, but I knew the images he crafted for the screen were sublime. Earth-shatteringly beautiful paintings that were somehow very quietly powerful at the same time. But how the movie looked was only a sliver of what had grabbed me. The way the film advances, leisurely and reflective, like a long walk that you have all to yourself, was electrifying. That a film about one of America’s most infamous outlaws (that’s really about so much more) could be so lyrical and moody, gently insistent in what it was trying to say concerning legends, legacies, the transient, elusive nature of time and glory, was a revelation.

What’s so satisfying about The Assassination of Jesse James is how it manages to succeed in the face of conventional wisdom about what a Western–or any movie for that matter–should be. It’s long, the final runtime a staggering two hours and forty minutes. It’s framed by a voiceover narration that seems like a big no-no, but inexplicably works. You can count the number of gunfights and on-screen deaths on one hand. Perhaps most notably, the drama and action are almost solely contained within the fluctuating relationship between Bob Ford and Jesse James, which is somehow mesmerizing even though the title of the movie leaves no room for doubt as to the story’s conclusion.

It’s essentially a film that proves how impactful and resonant art can be when it is demanding and respectful of its audience, and I’ve spent much of my movie-going life chasing after other films like it.

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