Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

By Jonathan Jackson
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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

This ambitious, richly rendered look at an American legend and his demise is an overly mutated mixture of voice-over narration, striking imagery and fascinating performance. Based on the novel of the same title by Ron Hansen published in 1983, the movie clearly struggles with its weight and transforming the novel into a consistently rewarding, for that matter engaging, cinematic experience.

 

In only two directing efforts, the New Zealand born Andrew Dominik has established an incredible talent for working with actors. Already having orchestrated two career making turns, first Eric Bana in Chopper and now Casey Affleck in …Jesse James..., he is surely at the top of any actor’s wish list of directors to work for.

 

Chopper is an interesting reference point when starting to analyze …Jesse James…, as both films look at legendary outlaw personas and treat them and their violence without condoning it, even mythologizing their compulsively violent disposition. …Jesse James…focuses on the slightly melancholy latter years of Jesse James, in his mid 30’s, well past the days the notorious James gang made their reputation.

Brad Pitt portrays Jesse James ably, lending him his own aura and presence, but without much creativity. He relies simply on a cold and vacant stare, seeming to have resigned himself to merely being. The performance likely would have worked, if not for the virtuoso turn by Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. It is rare to find a performance of such a cowardly, insular and shaken character that is so magnetic. In every scene, close-up and line of dialogue, you can feel the fragility of Robert Ford’s convictions. Affleck gives Ford an ageless quality, the kind of mystique and aura that Pitt’s James might have benefited from.

 

There are several other fine performances in the eclectic cast that features Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider. Pleasures are to be had in their turns, however, the films insistence on elaborating their stories seems to distract from the real drama of the movie, the relationship between James and Ford and the fascinating discord of Robert Ford’s face and thoughts.

 

I couldn’t help but also feel that the intermittent narration passages disrupted the films impact. Instead of allowing the drama to unfold naturally, which this rich emotional story so grounded in reality seems to warrant, the film insistently relies on breaking the narrative drama onscreen, with voice-over narration accompanied by undeniably sublime visuals. Shot by regular Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, the sequences transport the narration and story to an ethereal world of epic imagery, blurred out remembrances and violently hued landscapes.

 

Sometimes these visualizations bleed into the dramatic scenes and often it works only to distract from the performances and narrative. One might think that Andrew Dominik’s past as a music video and commercial director might still be coloring his technique, forcing him to overdo instead of understate.

 

Reportedly …Jesse James… spent 2 years in the editing room, with several different versions offered to test audiences over that time. I feel like the film was lost in the editing room, for there seems to be the raw material here for a truly great contemporary Western and a grand, dramatic meditation on the soul of an American hero. Oh, wait, I guess There Will Be Blood already took care of that this year.

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