As I make my way through every American studio movie released between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009, it’s becoming clear that 2007 was the weakest year of the decade. At the time, it was 2005, but I’ve caught up on so many blind spots from that year: Brokeback Mountain, Herbie: Fully Loaded, Hostel, Saw II, Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. I even revisited Just Friends, one of Ryan Reynolds’ first star vehicles and one of Amy Smart’s last. I didn’t like the movie at the time—fat suits are never funny—but now it’s in my top five for the year.
My moviegoing experience in 2005 was a string of disappointments—Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, Good Night and Good Luck, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, The Skeleton Key. Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was the only movie I really loved that year, along with Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (his best film). My family didn’t even see a movie on Christmas in 2005 (The Family Stone was the only option, and at an inconvenient time).
But 2007 was exhilarating at the time: David Lynch’s Inland Empire came out in America that March, Sam Raimi finished his excellent superhero trilogy with the unfairly maligned Spider-Man 3, and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland played at the Maryland Film Festival to me, half a dozen other people, and one irate man that nearly attacked Bronstein and festival programmer Eric Allen Hatch because he hated the movie so much. More than any of these films, though, the four Westerns that came out that fall were what made 2007 a banner year (at the time). No one needs to hear about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood again. They were lauded, did decent business, and became instant classics.
James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma made more money than either, and it came out first, on September 7. Like so many remakes of classic films, Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma is a blemish on the form. Besides bringing nothing new or interesting to the original Delmer Daves film from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma is incompetently directed, with zero sense of composition, pace, or space. All of Mangold’s action films are master classes in how not to film action. The cinematography in The Bourne Supremacy was jarring and borderline incomprehensible, but at least Paul Greengrass had a visual style—Mangold films his Western heroes with no logic, and the film’s never able to gain any momentum at all because of how badly it’s directed, shot, and edited. Christian Bale, Ben Foster, and Russell Crowe are fine in potboiler mode, but this movie’s inert.
Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is on the other end of the spectrum: a sorrowful, elegiac film told through its image as much as its characters. The legend of Jesse James and his ignoble assassin have faded since Westerns left popular cinema and television; I only know the broad strokes from other by Sam Fuller and Henry King. The release of four studio Westerns in one fall season hasn’t happened before or since this century; like Flightplan and Red Eye, or Antz and A Bug’s Life, this must’ve been a result of development logjam, executives reading and asking around about who’s doing what and what’s hot right now.
Only Jesse James and 3:10 to Yuma fit the bill—Dominik and Mangold were hired by studios, while the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson adapted novels on their own. If Anderson hadn’t made There Will Be Blood in 2007, I’m convinced that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would’ve swept every major awards ceremony—never mind that No Country for Old Men was the movie that actually won everything that year. The Coens’ Cormac McCarthy adaptation was a Western but in a contemporary setting; the other three Westerns of 2007 need no genre qualifiers, which is probably why they didn’t do as well. Mangold’s movie made money, but it came and went, a programmer; Anderson and the Coens generate their own material largely outside of the studio system; but Dominik’s film was adapted from the 1983 Ron Hansen book of the same name, and even then, no Westerns were getting attention at the movies.
John Carpenter is a horror who always wanted to make Westerns, but by the time he broke through in the late-1970s, Hollywood wasn’t making them anymore. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an astonishing film, a revisionist Western plucked straight from the mid-1970s and dropped into George W. Bush’s America. It’s the only revisionist Western I’ve seen with the same aching sorrow as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Sam Peckinpah made far bleaker and more violent films than this, but he was always the star; Dominik isn’t the kind of director to find surrogates in his cast. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career, and Casey Affleck has never been better.
Consider how difficult it is to play a “mercurial” person. An actor can take that and go in a million different directions, as opposed to “depressed” or “suicidal” or “New England alcoholic,” all of which apply to the movie he eventually won an Oscar for, Manchester by the Sea. I liked that movie, but Robert Ford’s so much more nuanced and interior, the kind of role that only a great actor—or a natural close enough to the character—can pull off. To wit, the person he reminded me of the most was Bob Dylan in Pat Garrett & Bill the Kid. Dylan’s mostly mute “Alias” was probably described as “mercurial” by screenwriter Rudolph Wurlitzer, but as played by Zimmerman, he comes off mentally handicapped.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has a sizable contingent of supporters, and I’ve met many people in the last 16 years who swear by it. I didn’t doubt them, even after Dominik’s uneven high-budget exploitation film Blonde; it has the best cinematography of all four (Roger Deakins shot this and No Country for Old Men), Affleck is far better than Paul Dano in Anderson’s film, and it must be said that the fact that this film was ever released, let alone became a cult classic, is a stunner: Dominik shot from August to December 2005, with a scheduled release date of September 2006. It got delayed a year when the studio and several Dominik-allied editors went through different cuts, all long. The fact that Brad Pitt was a producer saved the movie from oblivion, and kept one of its most endearing qualities: Pitt had it written into his contract that the studio couldn’t change the title. It’s a mouthful, but musical, the kind of title you hear or read once and never forget, the kind of title that people use to fill in the blanks or make puns in headlines.
It’s Affleck’s best role, and unless he emerges from post-#MeToo seclusion, he’ll never top The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith