Monday, September 24, 2007

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" -- * * * *

Make no mistake about it: there's a supreme level of genuine cinematic artistry on display in Andrew Domink's haunting and beautiful (in every sense of the word) "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." If you’re looking for a fun, old-fashioned western adventure, “3:10 to Yuma” certainly satisfies in that respect. “Jesse James,” on the other hand, is for audiences looking for something far richer, poetic and thought-provoking; I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I’ve seen it. There's a dreamlike, ethereal feel here that will make audiences instantly realize they're watching a film operating on its own elegiac wavelength, unique from any other-- whether or not they'll like it is another story.

Based on the heavily researched novel by Ron Hansen and equipped with a silky-voiced narrator (Hugh Ross), the film kicks off in September of 1881, with the arrival of fresh-faced, star-struck Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) at the James gang’s forest hideout on the eve of their final train robbery. Ford is initially coldly rejected by Frank James (Sam Shepherd) and half-heartedly patronized by Jesse (Brad Pitt), but after Frank calls it quits and heads back east, Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) continue to run with the James gang, including Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt). Though a camaraderie develops amongst them all, Ford never does a very good job of concealing his obsession/idolization of hot-headed, charismatic Jesse. Jesse never feels entirely easy around Bob, nor Bob around Jesse (the latter asks, “do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?”). As the two mens’ relationship develops, Bob’s blind admiration turns into something significantly more complex and indefinable.

The film takes a narrative approach that seems shaky and questionable at first, but eventually proves to be exactly the kind necessary for this type of story. Dominik slowly crosscuts between various story strands focusing on the different men involved in the initial train robbery; they're all engaging, but we’re not made 100% clear on their relevance initially. However, in retrospecrt, every sidestory or sequence serves to enrich our understanding of the characters and where the film will take them later. The one seemingly consistent element throughout is the characters' universal fear of Jesse and that any wrongdoing of theirs might bring his arrival (and punishment).

For a film that’s going to be branded as a “western,” “Jesse James” is startlingly low on violence and high on psychological drama. However, when Dominik does stage violence, it’s in a very precise manner with a jarring impact and attention to realism at all costs. This is the first film I can recall that depicts gunfights as clumsy, messy ordeals, with shooters rarely hitting the intended target until they’re practically right next to each other.

Much has been made of “Jesse James’s” epic running-time, 2 hours and 40 minutes. While I can’t say it’s a quick-moving epic, a la “Zodiac,” I can say I was never less than completely compelled for the entirety of the film’s duration. Some say the film could have been cut down, and while that’s technically true, so many of its finest “unnecessary” moments would have been lost, and I think this is the sort of film that almost needs to be long, to allow it to completely wash over you. But one should know beforehand that this is a film that takes its time, and if you don’t think you can handle that, the 96-minute-long “Good Luck Chuck” is playing right next door.

The awe-inspiring cinematography by the great Roger Deakins and the repetitious score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis cast a haunting spell in and off themselves, that the film could conceivably work simply as a masterpiece of mood and tone. In fact, many people have been prone to comparing “Jesse James” to a Terrence Malick film in the way it utilizes visual poetry. While it's a valid point, this is a significantly richer and more involving work than something like “The New World,” which hypnotized with its imagery and sound, but failed to involve beyond the surface aspects. Even if you wade beyond the astonishing filmmaking on display, there are fascinating character depictions here, a sprawling, enrapturing story, and themes at work to spawn hours-worth of conversation.

Casey Affleck has always struck me as a middle-of-the-road actor, occasionally doing acceptable work, while other times coming off as out-and-out bland. His portrayal of Bob Ford (as well as his upcoming lead role in “Gone Baby Gone”) officially announces him as an actor with remarkable talent. Ford is never given a “big” scene, so to speak, everything is always simmering under the service, but it’s an incredibly demanding, ever-changing role and Affleck fascinates every second he’s on screen. When Ford is being nerve-rattlingly creepy (drawing tenuous comparisons between himself and James), it’s a thousand times more unsettling than the dialogue alone would imply. But as much of a pathetic creep as he may be, there’s always an undercurrent of humanity to Ford, particularly in the film’s final act, which shows his increasingly sad life post-assassination. Even if the film makes next-to-nothing at the box office, there’s no question this is the performance that will launch Affleck to the next echelon, and I think it’s going to net him an Oscar nomination.

This is absolutely Affleck’s show, but it’d be criminal (as well as misguided) to undervalue Pitt’s work here as simply playing a version of himself—as some critics have done. Pitt plays James as a man haunted by his inner demons as well as his celebrity, fully aware of how people look at him and using it to his advantage. Menace is in his eyes in almost every sequence he’s in, and there’s a startlingly tense scene of him stopping by an acquaintance’s residence that shows the fear he instills in people; he’s portrayed as a man who controls every element of his life, even his death (the “assassination” of the title is presented as more of a world-weary resignation by James). Though he often allows the beast within to show through—he’s prone to inexplicable rage and bursts of violence—he’s also oddly sympathetic at points, and James never comes off as less than a tragic figure. Both Pitt and Affleck’s performances disallow the film from containing black and white moral judgments, or conventional heroes and villains.

Numerous writers I respect greatly-- including CHUD's Devin Faraci-- have professed that they love the film so much, yet (or perhaps as a result) they're having trouble writing an actual review for it. To the same end, the rave reviews I've read for the film failed to capture or illustrate what exactly is so great about it. Having seen the film now, it makes sense. It's hard to define the greatness of "Jesse James" or put your finger on it; we're simply not used to films making us feel the way this one does. Despite comparisons to past works of Malick, I don't think another film has had me leave the theater feeling quite the way this one did, and I’m not entirely sure this review does any better in capturing what’s special about it.

Once in a blue moon-- or in the case of 2007, twice in one year-- a major studio manages to accidentally create a gloriously uncommercial piece of challenging, artful cinema that only got made due to the involvement of major Hollywood players. Needless to say, the studio never knows what to do with the film, cuts different versions, desperately tries to make it mainstream, and eventually resigns out of exhaustion and just cuts their losses by dumping the film into theaters with little fanfare or attention. Paramount did it with "Zodiac" and now Warner Bros. is doing is with "Jesse James." But where the former at least had the hook of being a murder/crime procedural, the latter is a unique, epic tone-poem that is only going to appeal to an extremely small percentage of audiences and is going to need all the help it can get. It’s easy to see that this was a labor of love for Pitt, and not a cheap grab for awards or box office.

“The Assassination of Jesse James” is a sad, mournful film, though it’s open to debate about what exactly its mourning; it ends on a profound note of ambiguity and regret that I can virtually guarantee will stay with you, even if nothing else about the film does. Dominik’s dreamlike style and methodical pacing will certainly not appeal to everyone—my showing featured numerous walkouts, as well as audible sighs—but those who allow it to wash over them will find the film totally and utterly entrancing. Though it’s likely to not be given its proper due till years down the line, this is unquestionably, at the very least, one of the best films of 2007.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is currently playing in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, and will slowly roll out around the country throughout October (Non-specific expansions have been set for October 5 and 19).

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck), Cinematography, Score, Costume Design


Anonymous Carolyn said...

Well written article.

5:40 AM  

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