A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD  ROBERT FORD jjj

2007, R, 160 mins.

 

Jesse James: Brad Pitt / Robert Ford: Casey Affleck / Frank James: Sam Shepard / Zee James: Mary-Louise Parker / Dick Liddil: Paul Schneider / Wood Hite: Jeremy Renner / Ed Miller: Garret Dillahunt / Dorothy Evans: Zooey Deschanel / Henry Craig: Michael Parks / Sheriff Timberlake: Ted Levine / Charley Ford: Sam Rockwell / Martha Bolton: Alison Elliott / Gov. Crittenden: James Carville / Major George Hite: Tom Aldredge / Sarah Hite: Kailin See / Narrator: Hugh Ross

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik / Based on the novel by Ron Hansen

Jesse James is killed by Robert Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. 

Dammit...I forgot a SPOILER ALERT.

Okay, sarcasm aside, is there any real reason to see a film with this type of spoiler-laden title?  Certainly.   From a historical perspective, the film definitely deals with and accurately portrays the famous and notorious train robber and desperado named Jesse Woodson James.  Whatís interesting here is that the film acts as sort of a strange mirror image to our contemporary world.  Our modern media fuels up and facilitates the publicís desire for news regarding societal degenerates and it's the same media that fosters an odd level of hero worship out of these despicable and disreputable figures: The story of the life and death of Jesse James is no exception. It may have occurred over one hundred years in the past, but it definitely rings with an undeniable familiarity today.

To quote its full title yet again, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is certainly a mouth full; itís a long title and its length certainly reflects the literal length of the film itself.  This is a long film - nearly three hours - and it is one of the most atypical Westerns that I have seen.  Whereas other similar genre films have focused on action and violence, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a western that deals with more subtle nuances: itís a thoughtful, quiet, and oftentimes inquisitive meditation on the nature of humanity and celebrity.  There are moments in the film where its investigation into the hearts and mindsets of its characters borders on artistic, self conscious pretentiousness.  However, the film does a decent job of showcasing how normal men are built up to the level of a mythic legend and how other people are insatiable attracted to that idea.

Jesse James was a folk hero to some and, as presented in the film, was a fairly decent and affable family man.  But he was also a terrible tyrant and a deplorable killer.  The film's title insinuates that his killer, Robert Ford, was a "coward", but James could also be described as such, as he was not above shooting men in the back in cold blood, robbing stage coaches, and breaking the law with reckless abandon.  Make no mistake about it, James was a vile killer of men and women, but history and his legacy made him a strange and peculiar anti-hero.  While watching THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES I was - for some weird reason - reminded of Oliver Stoneís NATURAL BORN KILLERS, which also dealt with similar themes of how people and the media can create a vacuum where the despicable are adored instead of vilified.

Beyond this, JESSE JAMES is also is one of the most beautiful westerns ever filmed, with cinematography that creates such an eerie, atmospheric, Terrence Malick-esque vivaciousness and grandeur.  Filmed largely outside of Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, Director Andrew Dominik (CHOPPER) and his cinematographer Roger Deakins create such stunning and magnificent visuals that capture the immeasurable dreamlike aggressiveness of the American frontier.  Without a shadow of a doubt, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a masterstroke work from a visual perspective.

Yet, I think the film falls short of being a stirring and memorable masterpiece - and it falls very, very short - largely because of its narrative baggage.  I normally praise long films, but in this case THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES - at 160 minutes - is simply too bloated for its own good.  Sections of the film drag considerably and bring the proceedings to a screeching halt.  Character focus seems to wander off as well too often; many times we have to remind ourselves as to who is who and how they relate to one another.  Certainly, the film does an exemplary job in the final hour building to the inevitable showdown between Ford and James, and the scene is a virtuoso bit of tense editing and contains powerful performance beats.  Yet, itís the filmís languishing middle third that desperately needs a re-edit.  Skimming away some of the filmís more redundant and unnecessary aspects could have made it stronger and more commanding. There is nothing wrong with a patient film that demands a lot out of viewers, but this one gets so aimless and lacks coherence at times that it may lose many people.

The story itself, though, is compelling and involving.  It begins modestly in 1881 and thankfully does not waste too much time with needless exposition or character introductions (there is a voice over narration that does much explaining, but, in rare form, it carries a sort of solemn and melancholic tone, like a storyteller engaging in a mournful reading of a tragic ballad).  We meet up with Jesse James (played with an astonishing introverted and soft spoken vigor by Brad Pitt) and his gang, whom have all already established themselves into the mythology and fame of the time.  In the gang are Jesseís older sibling Frank (Sam Shepherd, quite decent in an underwritten role), Jesseís cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), the outlaw Dick Liddil (a very creepy Paul Schneider), Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell, in another solid and assured performance), and, yes, the coward of the title, Charleyís 19-year-old brother, Robert (Casey Affleck, who gives the standout performance of the film).

Although our focus may initially be on James, the film is largely more interested in the psychology of young Robert.  It shows how he came to be a member of the James gang and, more importantly, how he grew to have such hostility towards James that he took his life away from him.  At first, Robert comes off as one of those fanatic celebrity stalkers that end up on the six oíclock news for being found at the door of a famous actor claiming to be his or her lover.  Ford worships James, having read and committed to memory those glorified dime novels that showcased him as a Robin Hood figure.  Ford is so enamored with the allure of Jamesí own stature as a god among men that he will do absolutely anything to be a part of his crew, even if it pisses off James' brother.

Bobbyís fascination with the much older Jesse James kind of intrigues him (at one point, Ford rather creepily tells James, "It is interesting the many ways you and I overlap; you're the youngest of three James boys, I'm the youngest of five Ford boys.  You have blue eyes, I have blue eyes.  You're five feet eight inches tall, I'm five feet eight inches tall").  Yet, despite Fordís oddness, James accepts him and involves Ford in their robberies.  The first section of the film shows off its single best shot sequence, a daring and violent train robbery (known as the Blue Cut Train Robbery in history) that is filmed with such a painterly abstraction, creating an almost hypnotic, surreal atmosphere.  This, of course, only helps to perpetuate the stature of James as a ethereal and enigmatic hero.

The film then spirals through its sluggish middle act, which details the rather convoluted and rocky relationship between James and Ford.  This section seems to lack the most attention and focus.  Ford, at this time, goes from a young, naive, idealistic kid that loves James and everything he represents and then morphs into a deeply wounded and prideful man that wants to kill the bandit.  What we witness is a series of double crosses and betrayals, and how James slowly and methodically deals with those that he thinks has stabbed him in the back.  There are moments that do develop a lot of low key dread and tension, but the film here lacks cohesion and pacing.  When it does bring itself to the day of the killing, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES almost becomes a whole different film; itís so finely tailored, exquisitely shot, and memorably acted at this vantage point that I thought I was watching the best film of 2007.

Alas, and on the whole, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is not.  Certainly, the lethargic nature of the narrative fails to excite, but the film is a triumph from a visual and performance perceptive.  As stated, the lush grandness of the landscapes are powerful, but the incredible performances also stand out.  Pitt plays James as a man of twisted virtues and with a bi-polar intensity and rage (at one time, heís a affable father figure, at other times, heís a crazy brute that could kill you in your sleep without hesitation).  His less-is-more approach here works stupendously, as he's able to effectively modulate a performance that serves to rightfully demystify the man.

As much as I liked Pitt, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is owned by Casey Affleck, who seems to be churning out one great performance after another.  He's clearly 2007's breakout star, with his strong and commanding presence he brought to GONE BABY GONE, and now with his complete submersion into the Ford character.  He has the trickiest part in the film because his character has the most dramatic arc.  Ford starts as a childlike figure that cherishes James like a kid would a comic book hero and then he has to disintegrate into a wounded, soulful, and morally conflicted man that has to come to grips with the dire reality of his situation.  History, I think, has painted Ford harshly (certainly, if he did not shoot James than the outlaw would certainly have killed him), not to mention that his status as a momentary folk hero himself after he killed James is kind of sad and tragic.  Whatís great is how Affleck does not grandstand, nor does he overplay his role for dramatic effect.  He's able to effortlessly dial into this deeply tortured character and creates a persona that can never seem to come to grips with his status as a nobody.  Itís one of the great performances of apathy and emotional implosion, and Affleck, as he did with GONE BABY GONE, provides an Oscar-nomination worthy turn here.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is a film a strange contradictions.  It's a confident, bold, ambitious, and extraordinarily filmed western that creates such stirring sense of realism in its scenery.  It has performances that have such a painstaking level of pathos and moral confusion.  It also does an indelible job of honing in on the mystique of morally questionable celebrities and those that wish to aspire to similar heights, eventually achieve that level, and then come tumbling down.  The film also creates such an unyielding level of fatality and tension; we know whatís coming, but it nevertheless remains so moving and shocking.  However, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES lacks a bit of surefire craftsmanship with carving down its story length and running time.  If it were about 30 minutes shorter and did not feel like such a an endurance test at times, then the film would surely deserve high ranking alongside such masterful and authoritative westerns like UNFORGIVEN and THE PROPOSITION

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is regretfully a flawed vision.  Yet, on a positive note, itís a film with a strong vision that will definitely stay with me for a long time.

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