Sunday, September 23, 2007
2 Minute Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
Those looking for depth, as always, are advised to search elsewhere.
Easy to see what attracted Pitt to this piece of material as the film isn’t a horse opera (comparisons between this and 3:10 to Yuma are unavoidable but absurd to their core) so much as an indictment of fame and the toll of celebrity worship. Ditto for Dominik, whose return to directing six years after the release of Chopper again finds him chronicling the exploits of a charismatic sociopath. Now the only question is how either of these people convinced Warner Brothers to pay for the film.
Frequently lovely but almost impossible to love, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an ungainly, digressive, morose, over-long meditation on death (it wouldn’t be incorrect to refer to the film as a dirge, with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ mournful, Appalachian-themed score calling the tune) and the impossible demands of living up to a legend. A not entirely successful stylistic amalgamation of Days of Heaven, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Seabiscuit (seriously), the film celebrates the iconography of James as seen both through the eyes of Casey Affleck’s titular sycophant (we witness James as he strides through opaque sheets of steam and wraps himself in serpents) as well as a hero-starved public, with the film often employing a pin-hole camera effect, blurring the edges of Roger Deakins’ glorious widescreen photography, while at the same time presenting James as a paranoid, hollowed-out shell of a man, suspicious of all and never at peace. Gregarious and avuncular up until the moment he slits your throat, Pitt plays James as a man who hasn’t had a moment’s rest from the law and is own unbearable mystique in fifteen years, leaving him suspicious and haunted and incapable of sustained joy.
Arguably even more impressive is Affleck, in an inspired bit of casting, as the less “talented” younger brother hoping to prove his worth and greatness. A fan and scholar of James’ violent exploits, Ford is shown here idolizing the famed bandit like a schoolgirl admiring the star quarterback, building up fantasies and relationships that will never come to fruition inside of his own mind, only to turn cold once his advances are rebuffed (in a strictly platonic sense). Speaking in a high pitched whine and unable to sustain eye contact for more than a few seconds, Affleck’s clingy need for acknowledgment calls to mind everyone from Mark David Chapman to Paris Hilton. In perhaps the most important exchange of the film, James asks Ford if he wants to be like him or actually be him, a question the film, quite justifiably, never answers.
There’s a great film to be found buried underneath nearly three hours of atmosphere and production design but it sadly doesn’t reveal itself until the film’s final act when it is Ford who’s literally been thrust into the spotlight, having eclipsed James in infamy if not in esteem. A slow, self-destructive decline continuing the cycle of hero-worship only to be torn down to size by a fickle public, herein lies the film’s greatest purpose and ultimately its tragic underlining, making it all the more disappointing that it’s been hastily telescoped into what amounts to a disproportionate denouement. Lost and adrift for much of its run-time, with almost an hour of the film dedicated to the misadventures of the buffoonish and forgettable James gang (think of all those subplots in Heat featuring Dennis Haysbert and Val Kilmer’s characters only without energy or purpose), The Assassination of Jesse James seems at a loss for purpose when it doesn’t feature one of the two men of its title. Equal parts poetic and pretentious, flabby and anemic, The Assassination of Jesse James may end up being the most maddening film I recommend all year. B