Filming took place near Calgary, Alberta; with additional locations in Canmore, Alberta; Edmonton, Alberta; and Winnipeg, Manitoba. Initially intended for a 2006 release, it was postponed and re-edited for a September 21, 2007 release date.
In 1881, young, starstruck Robert "Bob" Ford (Casey Affleck) seeks out Jesse James (Brad Pitt) when the James gang is planning a train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri, making unsuccessful attempts to join the gang with the help of his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), already a member. The train turns out to be carrying only a fraction of the money originally thought, and Frank James (Sam Shepard) tells Charley Ford that this robbery would be the last the James brothers would commit. Jesse returns home to Kansas City, bringing the Fords, Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and his cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner). Jesse sends Charley, Wood and Dick away, but insists that Bob stay. He wanted the younger man just for his help in moving furniture to a new home in St. Joseph, Missouri. Bob becomes more admiring of James before being sent back to the farmhouse of his widowed sister, Martha Bolton, where he rejoins his brother Charley, Hite, and Liddil.
Liddil reveals to Bob that he is in collusion with another member of the James gang, Jim Cummins, to capture Jesse for a substantial bounty. Meanwhile, Jesse visits another gang member, Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), who gives away information on Cummins' plot. Jesse kills Miller, then departs with Liddil to hunt down Cummins. Unable to locate him, Jesse viciously beats Albert Ford (Jesse Frechette), a young cousin of Bob and Charley. Liddil returns to the Bolton farmhouse, and argues with Hite, which ends with Bob Ford killing Hite. They dump his body in the woods to conceal the murder from Jesse.
Jesse and Charley Ford travel to St. Joseph where Jesse learns of Hite's disappearance, which Charley denies knowing anything about. Meanwhile, Bob goes to Kansas City Police Commissioner Henry Craig (Michael Parks), saying he knows Jesse James' whereabouts. To prove his allegiance with the James gang, Bob urges Craig to arrest Dick Liddil. Following Liddil's arrest and confession to participation in numerous gang robberies, Bob brokers a deal with the Governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden (James Carville). He is given ten days to capture or kill Jesse James, and promised a substantial bounty and full pardon for murder.
Charley persuades Jesse to take Bob Ford into the gang; the brothers return to St. Joseph. Introduced as cousins to the Howards (the James' pseudonym), they stay with the family, including Zee James (Mary-Louise Parker) and their two children. Jesse wants to revive his gang by robberies with the Fords, beginning with the Platte City bank. On the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse and the Ford brothers prepare to depart for the robbery. Jesse reads in the newspaper about the arrest and confessions of Liddil. While the three men are in the living room, Jesse removes his gun belt and climbs a chair to clean a dusty picture. Bob shoots Jesse in the back of the head and flees with Charley. They send a telegram to the governor to announce Jesse's death, for which they were to receive $10,000. However, they never receive more than $500 each.
After the murder, the Fords become celebrities, touring with a theatre show in Manhattan in which they re-enact the assassination, but people soon dislike that Bob shot Jesse, unarmed, in the back. Guilt-stricken, Charley writes numerous letters to Zee James asking for her forgiveness, but does not send them. Suffering from terminal tuberculosis, he commits suicide in May 1884. Bob works around the West. On June 8, 1892, Bob is murdered by Edward O'Kelley (Michael Copeman), at his saloon in Creede, Colorado. O'Kelley is sentenced to life in prison, but Colorado Governor James Bradley Orman pardons him after ten years in 1902.
The film is narrated by Hugh Ross.
In March 2004, Warner Bros. and Plan B Entertainment acquired feature film rights to Ron Hansen's 1983 novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Andrew Dominik was hired to write and direct the film adaptation. Pitt was considered to portray Jesse James. The role of Ford eventually was between Affleck and Shia LaBeouf; Affleck was cast because it was felt that LaBeouf was too young. Bill Clinton's presidential campaign strategist James Carville was selected to play the Governor of Missouri. By January 2005, Pitt was cast, and filming began on August 29, 2005 in Calgary. Filming also took place in other parts of Alberta, including McKinnon Flats, Heritage Park, the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, the Kananaskis area, several private ranches and the historical Fort Edmonton Park. The historical town of Creede, Colorado was recreated at a cost of $1 million near Goat Creek in Alberta. Filming also took place in Winnipeg in the city's historic Exchange District; the Burton Cummings Theatre (formerly known as The Walker Theatre) and the Pantages Playhouse Theatre, and concluded in December 2005.
The film was initially edited by director Dominik to be "a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy," similar to the style of director Terrence Malick. The studio opposed Dominik's approach, preferring less contemplation and more action. One version of the film had a running time of more than three hours. Pitt and Ridley Scott, producers of the film, and editors Dylan Tichenor (who left the production early to cut There Will Be Blood, and was replaced with editor Curtis Clayton, who ultimately finished the production) and Michael Kahn (who was brought in for several weeks as the studio's "go to" editor), collaborated to assemble and test different versions. These did not receive strong scores from test audiences. Despite the negative response, the audiences considered the performances by Pitt and Affleck to be some of their careers' best. Brad Pitt had it written into his contract that the studio could not change the name of the film.
One of the most well-known sequences of the film is the scene of a train robbery at night time. Cinematographer Roger Deakins used various cinematographic techniques to give the train more of a presence when it was in pitch darkness. The idea was to generate a sense of forbidding atmosphere by using only the lanterns held up by the outlaws and the 5K PAR light mounted on the front of the train In order to enhance the blacks, Deakins did a slight bleach bypass on the negative, which was especially important in terms of rendering detail.
Some scenes in the film have a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. These were achieved by taking old wide-angle lenses and mounting them onto the front of several cameras (Arri Macros in this case). Deakins claimed to have pioneered this technique, naming these combinations of lenses "Deakinizers", which created the effect of vignetting and a slight color aberration around the edges. Deakins recalls:
Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew [Dominik] liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo. Andrew had a whole lot of photographic references for the look of the movie, mainly the work of still photographers, but also images clipped from magazines, stills from Days of Heaven, and even Polaroids taken on location that looked interesting or unusual. He hung all of them up in the long corridor of the production office. That was a wonderful idea, because every day we'd all pass by [images] that immediately conveyed the tone of the movie he wanted to make.
Several time-lapse sequences appear throughout the film, which were shot by Steadicam operator Damon Moreau. According to Moreau, he was sent to do such shots when the crew was not quite ready to shoot a scene. These time-lapse sequences were often accompanied by the film's melancholic score, suggesting the passage of time and contributing to the uneasiness that builds up to the inevitable yet unsettling climax.
The music for the film was composed by Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Both men collaborated to create the award-winning score for the Australian film The Proposition (2005).
Nick Cave had a minor part in the latter part of the film. He played a strolling balladeer in a crowded bar, where, unrecognized by the other patrons, Bob Ford had to listen to the lyrics of "The Ballad of Jesse James" as performed by Cave. This folk song referred to Ford as a coward.
Cave and Ellis released a double disc album titled White Lunar in September 2009, which contains several tracks from the Jesse James score, as well as tracks they composed for other films up to 2009.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was originally slated a release date for September 15, 2006. The release date was postponed to February 2007 at first, but ultimately set for a September 21, 2007 release, almost two years after filming was completed.
The film opened in limited release on September 21, 2007, in 5 theaters and grossed $147,812 in its opening weekend, an average of $29,256 per theater. The film has a total gross of less than $4 million.
Warner Home Video released the film on DVD on February 5, 2008 in the US, and on March 31 in the UK. So far, about 566,537 DVD units have been sold, bringing $9,853,258 in revenue.
The film received positive reviews and garnered a wide range of awards. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 76%, based on 169 reviews. The site's critical consensus reads, "On the strength of its two lead performances Assassination is an expertly crafted period piece, and an insightful look at one of the enduring figures of American lore." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 68 out of 100, based on 32 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Brian Tallerico of UGO gave the film an "A" and said that it is "the best western since Unforgiven." Tallerico also said, "Stunning visuals, award-worthy performances, and a script that takes incredibly rewarding risks, Jesse James is a masterpiece and one of the best films of the year." Kurt Loder of MTV said, "If I were inclined to wheel out clichés like 'Oscar-worthy', I'd certainly wheel them out in support of this movie, on several counts."
Richard Roeper on the television show Ebert & Roeper said, "If you love classic and stylish mood Westerns such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Long Riders, this is your film." Roger Ebert noted the "curiously erotic dance of death" between James and the "mesmerized" younger Ford. Finally, he said, "If Robert cannot be the lover of his hero, what would be more intimate than to kill him?" He notes that it has the "space and freedom" of classic Western epics, where "the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends."
The Star-Ledger film critic Stephen Whitty gave the film four stars and called it an "epic film that's part literary treatise, part mournful ballad, and completely a portrait of our world, as seen in a distant mirror." Whitty also said that the film is "far superior" and "truer to its own world" than 3:10 to Yuma. Josh Rosenblatt of The Austin Chronicle gave the film 3.5 stars and said the film "grabs on to many of the classic tropes of the Western – the meandering passage of time, the imposing landscapes, the abiding loneliness, the casual violence – and sets about mapping their furthest edges."
Film critic Emanuel Levy gave the film an "A" and wrote, "Alongside Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, which is a Western in disguise, or rather a modern Western, Assassination of Jesse James is the second masterpiece of the season." Levy also wrote, "Like Bonnie & Clyde, Dominik's seminal Western is a brilliant, poetic saga of America's legendary criminal as well as meditative deconstruction of our culture's most persistent issues: link of crime and fame, myths of heroism and obsession with celebrity." Lewis Beale of Film Journal International said "Impeccably shot, cast and directed, this is a truly impressive film from sophomore writer-director Andrew Dominik... but suffers from an unfortunate case of elephantiasis." Beale said Affleck is "outstanding in a breakout performance" and said Pitt is "scary and charismatic." Beale wrote, "The director seems so in love with his languorous pacing, he's incapable of cutting the five or ten seconds in any number of scenes that could have given the film a more manageable running time. In the scheme of things, however, this amounts to little more than a quibble." Beale said that ultimately, the film is "a fascinating, literary-based work that succeeds as both art and genre film."
Critic Mark Kermode named the film as his best of 2007 in his end-of-year review on Simon Mayo's BBC radio programme. Kermode later wrote that historians a hundred years from now will consider it "one of the most wrongly neglected masterpieces of its era."
Many critics opined that the film is too long. Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter said that the relationship between Pitt and Affleck "gets smothered in pointlessly long takes, repetitive scenes, grim Western landscapes and mumbled, heavily accented dialogue." Los Angeles Daily News critic Bob Strauss gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and said, "To put it most bluntly, the thing is just too long and too slow." Strauss also said, "Every element of this Western is beautifully rendered. So why is it a chore to sit through?" Pam Grady of Reel.com gave the film 2 stars out of 4 and said, "The movie is merely a long, empty exercise in style." Stephanie Zacharek of Salon.com said that the film "represents a breakthrough in the moviegoing experience. It may be the first time we've been asked to watch a book on tape."
Peter Bradshaw's review in The Guardian noted James's contribution to his own demise as well as the apparent paradox in the title of both novel and film:
As his career draws to an end, Jesse James becomes aware of the impossibility of facing an increasingly vast army of sheriffs, federal agents and Pinkerton men. He senses that, inevitably, one of his gang will in any case sell him out for a fat reward. Unwilling to give the lawmen that satisfaction, James embraces his own death and subtly cultivates the mercurial attentions of the most obviously cringing and cowardly of his associates: 20-year-old Robert Ford. With the taunts and whims of a lover, he encourages Ford's envious, murderous fascination, and grooms him as his own killer, so that his own legend will be pristine after his death. He engineers a character-assassination of Ford, and the title, knowingly, gets it precisely the wrong way around.
Bradshaw took issue with the narration that often redundantly describes action clearly visible to the viewer on the screen. "The only false note is the use of a supercilious third-person narrative voiceover, which smudges the picture's crispness and clarity."
During a post-screening Q & A. at the movie's ten year "revival" in 2013, Dominik reported that when he showed Terrence Malick a cut of Jesse James, his reaction was “it’s too slow,” drawing a laugh from the audience.
The film appeared on many critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was identified by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures as one of the top 10 films of 2007. The board also named Casey Affleck as Best Supporting Actor in the film. The San Francisco Film Critics Circle named The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as the Best Picture of 2007. The circle also awarded Affleck as best supporting actor for the film. Affleck was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for the 65th Golden Globe Awards.
The film received two Academy Award nominations for the 80th Academy Awards. Affleck was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Roger Deakins was nominated for Best Cinematography. Earlier in the year, Brad Pitt won the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actor when the film premiered at the annual Venice Film Festival. Several other awards circles also awarded composers Nick Cave and Warren Ellis for their music in the film (see below).
The film also holds a place on Empire's recent list of The 500 Greatest Films of All Time, coming in at #396. In 2016, it was voted the 92nd best film since 2000 in an international critics' poll.