Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Andrew Dominik

Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard

MPAA Rating: R (for some strong violence and brief sexual references)

Running Time: 2:40

Release Date: 9/21/07 (limited); 10/5/07 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik

I love the tone writer/director Andrew Dominik establishes in the film; it's the dragging-it-out-to-160-minutes part that gets me down. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has a long title and takes a longer time to get to that key event, when things finally start to get interesting. The style, pace, and characterizations come together to create an elegy for the impending death of a legend, and that's all well and good for a comparatively decent chunk of the movie. When one realizes that mood is all Dominik has to offer until the titular event actually happens well over two hours into the movie, it becomes clear that Dominik's intentions got away from him. Languid and sometimes downright dull, the movie might have worked had it been trimmed by twenty, thirty, or maybe even forty minutes from this final running time, and one can only be shocked by evidence within the movie that at one point it probably ran even longer. The length, of course, isn't the only problem. The narrative rambles, the omniscient voice-over by Hugh Ross starts off intriguing but becomes ridiculous in the epilogue, and the characters seem just as all-knowing. What's disappointing is the presence of considerable but not redeeming virtues.

It starts with a long description of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), who by the age of 34 in September of 1881, spends a lot of time in a rocking chair, still has the scars of his criminal lifestyle (two never-healed bullet-wounds and a missing part of a finger), admires his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and two children, and has never shown remorse for the 17 murders he reportedly committed. Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) have lost most of their gang to death or arrests, so for their last train robbery, they have assembled a group of for-hires, including Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), Wood (Jeremy Renner), Dick (Paul Schneider), and Ed (Garret Dillahunt). Young Bob Ford really wants to become a member of the James' gang, and he's idolized and idealized Jesse since his childhood. The robbery goes off with only one hitch: The money they expected to be there wasn't. So the gang separates. The James brothers part ways for the last time, and the Fords, Wood, and Dick return to their lodgings. Jesse becomes paranoid about being caught and betrayed and begins to make visits to his former partners in crime.

Dominik sets a dreamlike atmosphere from the start, with telescopic soft-focus scenes relating information about Jesse, and the train robbery is shot in a hypnotic sequence of silhouettes and steam—sparks and masks. The always-reliable cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand here, giving the wide compositions a striking, flat quality, and the movie is truly a beauty at which to look. Dominik's script has the characters speaking in affectionately period dialogue, and until the end of the train robbery, the movie works quite solidly as a methodical reflection on the spirit of post-Civil War legend. Brad Pitt towers as Jesse, the strong, silent type with a devilish smile that seems to say he's ready to shoot someone if looked at cross-eyed. Casey Affleck has a revelatory performance as Bob Ford, a young man obsessed with Jesse to a degree that goes beyond hero worship. When he stays with Jesse and his family after the robbery, the narrator tells us he begins to watch with such intensity that one might think he's preparing a biography or an imitation, and indeed, Jesse asks the kid if he wants to be like him or flat-out be him. Affleck's transition from jealousy to envy (the difference is important here) is solid.

So much of this works, it's a shame Dominik lets it get so out of hand. Jesse's visits to his old accomplices become repetitive, and the sense of tension as to his intentions slackens immensely. The violence, when present, is sudden and shocking, and the payoff to a man who's shot in the head is genuinely, surprisingly comic. The narrative is dragged out, and there are countless scenes that only serve to reiterate Jesse's paranoia and Bob's growing hatred. By the time the plot to go after Jesse (given to the Ford brothers by James Carville as the governor of Missouri) unfolds, we're left stupefied by the lack of real insight present in the long passage beforehand. The remaining characters appear resigned to the respective fates—pawns of destiny instead of masters of their own decisions—and, in that pivotal scene, they all act as if they've heard this story before. The extended epilogue, which follows Bob's post-killing days, would be a fascinating look at the nature of celebrity and its effects if not for the narrator's incessant psychoanalyzing—observations that Dominik does a fine enough job visualizing without it.

Domink is surely a director to watch. This is his sophomore feature, and while the movie is unavoidably, unmistakably problematic, it is also the work of inherently skilled filmmaker. Never boring but never fully involving either, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a lot of gorgeous fluff.

Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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