Just “Like” Jesse James



Tony McKiver takes aim at the quest to revive The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford .

A stag night might seem an unlikely catalyst for a successful film revival, but one man’s urge to celebrate his impending nuptials in unique style has spawned a blossoming online campaign to rerelease one of the most critically acclaimed yet commercially unsuccessful films of the last ten years.

New York-based television editor Jamieson McGonigle first saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford when it was originally released in 2007 and, like much of the small film-going audience that saw the film then, he has found himself haunted by a western that is frequently described as “mesmerising” and “dreamlike.” Where others who valued the film might have manifested their appreciation by buying a copy of the film on DVD or Blu-ray, McGonigle took his devotion to another level by tracking down and purchasing a 35mm print of the film. When he was organising to have his upcoming wedding ceremony in New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, he decided to try to leverage this patronage to obtain permission to hold a screening of his print as a rather unorthodox bachelor party. However, such is the affection in which the film is held and the enthusiasm for seeing it once again on the big screen that his initiative has ballooned into a public screening on December 7, 2013, to be attended and addressed by the film’s director, Andrew Dominik. Tickets sold out within a few hours, and already a second screening has been organised alongside an online campaign, Jesse James Revival, that is using grass-roots activism and social media to persuade repertory cinemas around the world to screen Dominik’s film.

The demand for a revival is perhaps not so surprising given the fact that Dominik’s beautiful and languorous western is both one of the most critically praised films of this century and also one of the least seen. Upon its initial release, it was described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw as “a tremendously stylish, intelligent retelling of western myth.” It received Oscar nominations for cinematographer Roger Deakins and Casey Affleck’s spellbinding performance as Bob Ford, a foolish young outlaw entranced by the celebrity of Jesse James. The marquee star was Brad Pitt, but the film repudiates his charisma, just as it strips away the lustre of the western legend: Pitt’s Jesse James is often a character literally out of focus, a quixotic misanthrope who both exults in and squirms from his own fame. This is not the rootin’-tootin’ outlaw hero from a previous generation of myth-making westerns.

Even before it was released, the film was treated as something of a nuisance by its own studio, with Warner Bros. fighting a protracted and ultimately unsuccessful battle with Dominik, who was backed by Pitt (one of the film’s producers), to reduce the film’s running time. The 160-minute film premiered in September 2007 and proceeded to sink like a stone. Despite the presence of Pitt, it made just $15 million worldwide against a production budget of $30 million. In an unusually strong year for cinema, it also missed out on even the token redemption offered by the Oscars as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood mopped up all the plaudits.

At every turn—from its unwieldy title, to its taxing length, to the fact that it doesn’t focus on Pitt’s character—the film might appear to deliberately repel viewers’ investment. By rejecting the expected, familiar techniques regularly used to secure audience interest, however, it comes up with its own novel form, one that is digressive, patient and deeply absorbing. It made a powerful impression on the lucky few who saw it during its initial release. By the time critics were compiling their “best of” lists to mark the end of the noughties, The Assassination of Jesse James was moving up near the top.

The campaign to revive the film has jumped continents. Besides bids to arrange screenings in Toronto, Seattle, Denver, Tucson, and Los Angeles, McGonigle has received requests from fans in London. There are also suggestions of a screening at Dublin’s Lighthouse, a cinema already famed for responding inventively to its audience’s tastes, exemplified by its regular dance-along screenings of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense!

The Assassination of Jesse James ends with a quiet, but stirring epiphany years after the killing mentioned in the title. We discover Bob Ford, physically unchanged but almost unrecognisably matured beyond his ridiculous boyish enthusiasms. He is reviled by people who did not know Jesse James at all, yet hold the outlaw up as a hero and Bob as a cowardly villain. Bob is quietly able to see past that official shame and to accept his own infamous deeds as the excusable acts of a child. There is something apt in reviving a film that itself celebrates a capacity to look back kindly and see beyond perceived failure and disgrace to discover something precious overlooked by official history. With a little luck, other overlooked films of recent years might benefit from this redemptive impulse.


Tony McKiver



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