Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

Director: Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel Running Time: 160 min.
Rating: R

*** (out of ****)

Yes, the title's too long. And yes, so is the film. And it isn't even the best Western released in 2007, as that honor still belongs to James Mangold's remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is everything its lengthy title implies it is. It's epic, sprawling and at times self-indulgent, but contains a story too deep, acting too strong and is shot too beautifully for me not to praise it. But those who can't stand Westerns would be wise to stay far away from it and even those who admire the genre may find it keeps them too far at arms length for their taste. Despite the presence of history's most famous outlaw in the story this isn't a shoot 'em up with good guys and bad guys and non-stop excitement. It's justifiably drawn comparisons to Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller and you could even argue it has a feel and style very similar to the work of Terrence Malik or early Clint Eastwood. This is a Western epic in the most traditional sense.

Whereas 3:10 To Yuma provided instant gratification this lingers in the mind's eye after it's ended and over time may prove itself to be, for better or worse, the film that stays with you longer. It also, probably more than any other film this year, makes a case of how important it is to end strong. Just when the film should be running out of gas and winding down in the last half hour it does just the opposite and fascinatingly explores the two main characters deeper, even though one is deceased.

I always thought the most effective endings of films ask us to go back and re-evaluate everything that has come before it and readjust our thinking, opening up new possibilities for further viewings (although I don't know of many who'd have the patience to watch this film repeatedly). If you don't want to see this film I understand. A nearly three hour Westerns may not be your cup of tea. But please don't avoid it because you already know that Robert Ford winds up killing Jesse James. That isn't the ending, nor is it what this movie is about.

19 year-old Robert Ford (Oscar nominated Casey Affleck) was someone who we'd affectionately refer to nowadays as a "fanboy." The subject of his adulation (or rather, obsession) is the outlaw train robber Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whom he idolized all through his youth. After constantly bugging James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), Ford, along with his brother Charles (Sam Rockwell) are taken as a part of his gang in Missouri even as the walls slowly seem to slowly be closing on the reckless and paranoid James' operation. Joining them are James' first cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and hanger-on Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider). Troubles begin immediately as James lacks the capacity to trust anyone and his explosive, unpredictable behavior induces severe agitation and fear in nearly every person he comes in contact with, friend or enemy.

Ford's relationship with James is a peculiar and complex one. While he idolizes him for his exploits and would want nothing more than to follow in his footsteps, he also deeply resents him because he's a manipulative bully who could care less about his feelings. That this surprises Ford is a tip-off as to just how weak and naïve he really is. His obsession with James also causes him great embarrassment and humiliation at the expense of his brother and his peers who view him as nothing more than a pathetic, whiny little boy who would do anything for his hero. They're right, and Ford's resentment over the situation slowly builds throughout the picture, leading him down a moral path he didn't think he was ever capable of traveling. Bob Ford eventually kills Jesse James but the "how" and the "why" are much more complicated than they seem on the surface and even after the deed is done we're still asking questions about how it could have possibly ever come to that and whether it's fair for Ford to really be considered a coward.

Despite how wildly different both films are, it's interesting to compare and contrast Pitt's portrayal of Jesse James in this film with Russell Crowe's equally excellent work as the villainous outlaw Ben Wade in 3:10 To Yuma. Both men are dangerous, but Crowe presented Wade as fairly even tempered, sly and systematic in his approach. That's not the case here with Pitt's take on James, who is actually the more dangerous of the two because he's unpredictable and inconsistent, with no one, including himself being aware of what he'll do next. Pitt has come so far as an actor improving it seems with every role and it scares me to think, the more experienced he continues to get, just how much deeper he's capable of going.

Casey Affleck does a fine job as the wimpy, cry baby Ford but it's Pitt's magnetism as James that pulls us into the film and makes us understand how so many would worship and fear him at the same time. The irony that one of our biggest celebrities is playing (and owning) this role of the biggest celebrity of the Old West doesn't come into full focus until the final half-hour, but when it does the notion grabs hold and never lets go. The casting of Pitt was genius. So was the selection of Affleck. I couldn't help but laugh when the narrator remarked that after killing James the previously unrecognizable Ford couldn't go anywhere without being noticed. Since he's played by Affleck this becomes doubly ironic because besides being one of our most nondescript looking actors, he was always better known as being someone's little brother. After the year he's had that shouldn't be a problem much longer.

The most glaring flaw of Andrew Dominik's film (adapted from Ryan Hansen's 1983 novel) is that it could have benefited from some serious cutting in the editing room. It is very much a piece of literature adapted for the screen and gives off the impression little was excised in translation. This is especially true of the problematic middle section, which gets sidetracked with various supporting characters, none of whom are as engaging as James or Ford. It also gets preoccupied with James' double-crossings and betrayals involving these characters in scenes that at times seem to linger on minutes longer than they should.

Dreamy soft-focus photography and voice-over narration is employed during scene transitions, the latter sometimes irritatingly giving us information that's plainly obvious in Affleck's performance. On the heels of Todd Field's Little Children, this method (which was previously frowned upon) has become more popular than ever recently, but here it's abused a little and isn't all that necessary. At points it even gives off the wrong vibe making the film feel more like a History Channel documentary. When the concentration is on Ford's hero worship of James the story crackles and when it's not there are points where I was just waiting impatiently. Luckily, while I was waiting I had Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography to keep me company. With Canada standing in for the Old West his is probably the best looking film of the year and Deakins deserves to take home the gold on Oscar night for his efforts. He's one of the few directors of photography (along with Harris Savides) whose look and style is so instantly recognizable you know it's his film without ever glancing at his name on the closing credits.

Names you'll have to check twice for in those credits are Weeds co-stars Mary Louise Parker (as James' wife Zee) and Zooey Deschanel (as Ford's girlfriend Dorothy Evans) who both put in appearances you'll miss if you happen to blink. Parker does have one big scene but wouldn't it have been nice to know what Jesse James' wife thought about his "career?" Or more importantly, how she really felt about him? While I'm not thrilled about it, I can get over them wasting Parker, but doing nothing with the talents of Deschanel is a crime against humanity when you have 160 minutes to work with. But at least she got in on the end, which is where this movie really soars, turning the camera on us and exploiting our culture's obsessive fascination with celebrity.

It's in the aftermath of James' death that Dominik reverses viewers and Ford's expectations. In doing so he shows us that this story reverberates every bit as much today as it did then, if not more. That's why, despite its flaws, it works. If Jesse James were around today you get the impression he'd be just as popular, despite being a murderer. America loves a bad guy just so long as they're charismatic and entertaining. What we'd say about Ford today I have no idea, but it probably wouldn't be all that different than what they said then. And that's the big trick this film pulls out of its hat. In telling us about the assassination of Jesse James, what the story says about us ends up being just as revealing as what we learn about the two men involved.

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