Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“He was born Jesse Woodson James on September 5th, 1847, and was named after his mother’s brother, a man who committed suicide. He stood five feet eight inches tall, weighed one hundred fifty-five pounds, and was vain about his physique…he was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious lest that mutilation be seen…he had a condition that was referred to as granulated eyelids and it caused him to blink more than usual, as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept…he could be reckless or serene, rational or lunatic, from one minute to the next. If he made an entrance, heads turned into his direction; if he strode down an aisle store clerks backed away; if he neared animals they retreated. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rains fell straighter, clocks slowed, sounds were amplified.”

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen the film tells the story of the famous outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his friend who shot him in the back, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck). The film is filled with supporting characters and events too numerous to mention here. Plot divergences, threads, and events that work both with and against the main tale. But at its core this is a film about two men and how their destinies became intertwined during their lives and long after their deaths.

The look and feel of the feel is amazing and I commend both director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Roger Deakins on its style. Narrated (Hugh Ross) from Hansen’s own prose, which gives the right amount of compliment and contrast to the stylistic cinematography, makes this is a film to watch and savior every nuance.

The 160 minute running time is trimmed from the original, more than three-hour, cut of the film. It’s still too long, and, at the same time, in doing so some of the characters and smaller events appear incomplete. There’s simply too many characters and periphery scenes that, although well acted, give little information or substance to the main plot of the film. Also troubling is the movie’s unwillingness to choose a central character. It’s a film about Jesse James, it’s a film about Robert Ford, and it’s a film about the Ford family, the outlaws, the James family, and so on and so on. Unfocused, the film meanders more than it should. A novel can move between such storylines from chapter to chapter, but the same approach comes off too often as haphazard on screen.

One of the film’s strengths, and also its weaknesses, is presenting all the characters as shades of gray. Jesse is a good husband and father, but also at times crazy, paranoid, and downright mean and onery to his closest friends. Affleck’s Ford worships Jesse but also is constantly put down and shamed by his hero. Bob Ford is a coward, and a man who wants so desperately to be Jesse James and ends up destroying what he most worships. The section of the film following his life after the death of Jesse James continues to paint him as a tragic and hopeless figure. If the film had chosen one or the other as the main character or at least stable point of view I believe the film could have been better arranged and edited into a more coherent whole.

Those expecting a big shoot-em up or fun romp on the plains in the style of recent westerns such as Young Guns and American Outlaws are bound to be disappointed. Even with my complaints with the film I am giving it a strong recommendation. Slow paced and cerebral, the film insists on patience from its audience as it slowly unfolds the many layers of its tale. Although I have only been able to view it once, it seems to me the type of film which may improve on multiple viewings, and I look forward to seeing it again. It’s not a perfect film, but it is memorable and strives to give you more, not less, than you paid to see.

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