Friday, October 12, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This is not the movie I envisioned when I ventured in to theater, and I intend that as a high praise. This isn't a shoot-em-up old school Western with stock line readings and pretty pictures, but instead a haunting art film not necessarily about one of the most enduring legends of American past (we already know all about that), but about how that legend came to an end. The Assassination of Jesse James, directed by Andrew Dominik, centers around the last months of James' life starting with his last real heist, to the almost pitible end of his life. There's a saddness, a forboding, and an elegaic grace to way Brad Pitt plays James-- part schziephrenic lunatic, part forlorn middle-aged man ready to accept the end of his life. In the last months of his life, James is followed and pestered by a young 19-year-old named Robert Ford (a revelatory Casey Affleck), a kid so eternally fixated by Jesse that he stops at nothing to be a part of his legendary gang, hoping to cement some small piece to history.
The majority of the movie is centered around Jesse at home, where he's known as Thomas Howard, and petty criminals in his circle of friends, all to the graceful tune of Nick Cave's simple score and Roger Deakins beautiful photography (if he can't win an Oscar for his transcendant work in The Man Who Wasn't There, please Academy rectify the situation here-- never has a blowing cornfield made such an impression in American film before.) The first hour and a half is pretty much all character building nonchalance, nothing much matters, but it's interesting and director Dominik builds upon every scene. I understood and was riveted by Robert Ford trying, and mostly failing, the gain the trust and respect of his hero, even by suggesting all their similarities. He's like a post-Civil War Talented Mr. Ripley.

As the film reaches it's apex, it's startling how jolting it is emotionally. The Assassination of Jesse James works as both ambitious art film and interesting historical side note. In the end, no one will ever remember Robert Ford and the legend of Jesse James will always have significance, but in lots of ways this film leans more towards Ford, who was just trying to cling on to that legend.

Two quibbles about this otherwise fine film-- first there's about five endings in this movie-- there's a bit of Lord of the Rings: The Return of King or Magnolia complex going on- a director so in love with his subject he can't seem to ever end it, which would be fine, but come on, this movie is long enough. And secondly, why put master class actors like Mary Louise Parker (as Zee James, Jesse's wife) and Zooey Deschanel (Ford's admirer) in a film and not utilize them one bit-- it's sad to see such fine actresses saddled in the background. B+

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