Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not only a maddening title for a movie, but is also a maddening movie. The title comes from the 1983 novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, adapted here by Australian writer/director Andrew Dominik. It tries really hard to be a great movie (and should be commended for at least trying), but while it has some great things, it is much too uneven to achieve that status.

The story follows the life of Robert “Bob” Ford (Casey Affleck) as he tries to worm his way into the gang of the notorious Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whom Bob has idolized as the dime-store novel hero the old west writers have turned him into. Bob joins just in time to participate in a particularly big train robbery with the other members of the James gang, including his brother Charley (the always reliable Sam Rockwell). After that big job, Jesse’s older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) retires and leaves Jesse in complete control of the gang, which quickly disbands. As time goes by though, Jesse becomes paranoid, convinced that his old gang members will betray him to the authorities, so he sets out to get rid of them. For a time Bob and Charley accompany Jesse, but Jesse is made uncomfortable by Bob’s incessant staring and general obsession with him. In fact, everyone in the movie seems to be uncomfortable around Bob except for his brother. Bob is a little strange and always seems to just not fit in. Jesse never lets Bob forget this, always antagonizing him, to the point that before long Bob’s obsession turns dangerous.

Casey Affleck is quite good as Bob, even if much of the praise he’s received seems to be an overreaction to low expectations. We can subtly see his obsession turn, and Affleck plays each descending note of Bob’s life with surprising deftness. Brad Pitt is also very good as Jesse, ably showing the dichotomy between his tough, outlaw, bullying nature and paranoid, frightened, increasingly mentally unstable disintegration. The supporting roles are filled with talented actors all around, from the previously mentioned Rockwell and Shepard to Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, and Jeremy Renner as members of the James Gang. Although I have to say if there is one quibble about the acting, it’s that the female roles were completely wasted by casting talented actresses like Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel and then giving them nothing to do. Deschanel in particular is an actress that can inject so much life into a movie, but is barely given a handful of lines here (I actually don’t remember any, but I’m sure there were a couple).

The movie looks amazing; much credit should go to ace cinematographer Roger Deakins. His past work includes not just every Coen Brothers movie since 1991 (including Oscar nominations for Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There and No Country for Old Men), but also Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, and Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (both of which garnered him additional Oscar nods). He is a highly sought after director of photography, and if you see this movie it won’t be difficult to understand why. Nearly every scene could be taken as a painting unto itself; even the more mundane scenes in people’s homes are exquisitely shot.

However, Dominik tries to give the movie a sense of weight by having meaningless silences at the end of nearly every scene. When the silences draw attention to themselves it ends up feeling more like bad editing than anything else. My biggest complaint about the movie though, is that Dominik felt the need to include a narration. I’m not against narrations on principle; in fact they can be immensely effective when used correctly. And I wouldn’t mind the narration in a contemplative piece such as this one (it just enhances the feeling that Dominik wants to be Terrence Malick) except the narrator that Dominik uses is not one of the characters in his story, but an omniscient narrator whose voice sounds more suited to a PBS special than a feature film. Like the narration of Todd Field’s recent Little Children and Stanley Kubrick’s “classic” Barry Lyndon, the narration proves completely unnecessary and ultimately undermines (rather than underscores) the happenings of the movie. We don’t need a narrator to tell us what Bob is thinking or why he’s doing something, or give us some background info on Frank and Jesse James. We see these things in the performances of the actors. The script is guilty of things like this as well, such as Jesse’s line to Bob “Can't figure it out: do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” we see that question in Casey Affleck’s eyes, we don’t need it pointed out for us like we’re school children who aren’t paying attention. A director casts a movie so that those types of things don’t need to be pointed out to the audience; they come through in the performances. You cast Sam Shepard in a movie because he brings that sense of history with him and it saves you from having to explain those things to the audience. It would be like casting Al Pacino in a movie and then wasting time explaining to the audience that his character has a lot of experience being a gangster.

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