CrankyÕs Flickershow Reviews

By Neil Richter

Shooting a Legend


            I cannot wholeheartedly recommend The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  As many reviewers have already pointed out, it is a film as long as its title.  It moves at the slowest pace imaginable, consists mainly of a series of conversations and numerous shots of the 19th century Missouri landscape, and is frequently interrupted by a pedantic voiceover that informs us, among other things, that Jesse James had a medical condition that caused him to blink more than normal.  Self-indulgent?  Yes.  Tedious?  Occasionally.  Brilliant?  I think so.

       This is the kind of epic that does everything except blow you out the back of the theatre.  It is quiet, seething, and sticks to you like gum.  I still cannot get Assassination out of my head.  The fact is, this is a daring film that takes numerous risks.  I salute the bravery of whatever studio released this.  The budget is obviously big enough to support the period detail over a hulking 2 hour and 40 minute runtime.  Yet this is a film that anyone could tell you is box-office poison.  The only marquee star isnÕt made to look very attractive at all, thereÕs no romance (unless you count the odd relationship between the two title characters), and though the guns occasionally come out blazing, it doesnÕt happen nearly enough to satisfy even the most casual of action fans.  What we are left with is the performances and the cinematography of Roger Deakins.  Boy, do they go a long way.

       Lets begin with the acting.  Though aided by a wonderful supporting cast (Paul Schneider being a real standout), Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck carry this thing right through to the finish line.  It is true that Pitt is given the showier role, but his challenge is nothing to be scoffed at:  He is asked to portray a legend who has already been the subject of dozens of films and documentaries while somehow finding something new to bring to the part.  I must say that he succeeds magnificently.  His Jesse James is at once terrifying and noble.  Anyone worth their salt knows that Brad Pitt can play a terrific psycho when asked to, but IÕve never seen somebody make psychosis look soÉregal.  The film makes much of the fact that whenever Jesse walks into a room; all activity comes to a standstill.  Pitt makes you believe that this man has that kind of power.  Through both his contemplative moments and occasional bouts of murderous rage, we are torn between revering Jesse James as a legend, or simply viewing him as a dreadfully sick man who should be taken off the plains and put in an asylum as fast as possible.  Perhaps PittÕs greatest feat though, is that the presence of Jesse James hangs over the rest of the film like a dark cloud after the titular assassination has taken place.

       Then there is Casey Affleck.  Being the younger brother of Ben Affleck canÕt be easy, and one feels as if Casey had to work extra hard to get any respect in Hollywood.  Here though, his peculiar gifts find their ideal vehicle.  With his small frame and high, reedy voice, AffleckÕs Bob Ford is annoying, engaging, creepy, and sympathetic, all at the same time.  From the first moment we see him, all but stalking the remnants of the James gang as they embark on a railroad robbery, we canÕt decide whether to punch him or shrink away from him.  Through his mixture of pathetic neediness and disturbing resolve, Bob manages to ingratiate himself into JesseÕs inner circle.  AffleckÕs performance really comes alive after this point, as his unabashed love for Jesse gradually turns into a smoldering resentment that will eventually doom both men.

       Backing up the cast is the ace work of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins.  Once again he proves himself a brilliant painter of light.  Though individual scenes stand out (For example, the nighttime train robbery is an awe-inspiring display of light and dark) Deakins is able to convey a singular mood throughout the film.  Apart from simply being pretty to look at, DeakinsÕ work allows Writer-Director Andrew DominikÕs tale to really shine.  It has the dreamlike glow of a legend while still maintaining a vibe of believability.  DeakinsÕ images lend credence and depth to the smallest gesture or line of dialogue.  In short, the cinematography makes you believe in the world on the screen. 

       In summation, The Assassination of Jesse James is an exceedingly long, exceedingly slow film that nonetheless achieves just about all of its artistic aims.  With the aid of a crack team of performers and a master cinematographer, Andrew Dominik has crafted a new way of looking at an old American legend.  Nevertheless, this is not popcorn cinema.  One must be in the right frame of mind to enjoy a film as quiet and intricate as this.  If you see this while out on a Friday night with the guys, you will hate it.  If youÕre looking for a couple hours of diversion from the daily grind, you will hate it.  If you want to see in order to look at Brad Pitt and talk to your friends about how hot he is, you will hate it.  However, if you want to settle in and really pay attention to the complex beauty that can be achieved through film, you will find that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford offers rich rewards.