Monday, April 27, 2009

Close to Greatness: The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford

[Apropos of nothing, except that I unwound by watching parts of this on Blu-ray today, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

It’s called The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, but in the interest of brevity the character-limited marquee at my local theater called the movie simply Jesse James. Of course it did. James is played by Brad Pitt, one of America’s biggest stars. And Jesse James? He was the Brad Pitt of his era. He wasn’t an actor but an outlaw – a robber of trains and banks – but he was the stuff of tabloids, the subject of rumor and fascination. The American public couldn’t get enough of his story, and thus so many stories were told about him that it was difficult to separate truth from tall tale. And so of course my local theater and the movie itself would attempt to sell tickets by putting in lights the name of Jesse James (and, by extension, Brad Pitt). Because James is a celebrity. He’s a draw. And who is Robert Ford anyway?

I’ll tell you: Robert Ford is the most interesting character in this movie. And that’s why it should be his name on the marquee. But any studio interested in making a profit is smart enough to know that something called Robert Ford might not draw as well as, say, a movie called John Wilkes Booth (which isn’t to say that the title The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is exactly hip). Plus, Ford is played by Casey Affleck. Yes, you read that correctly. Not Ben Affleck. The Other Affleck. Though maybe that’s more attractive.

Anyway, Affleck plays Ford in a captivating performance. With his squeaky voice and half-baked gaze, Affleck doesn’t have leading man stuff, but neither did Ford. That’s why it works. Affleck’s Ford is shifty, awkward and insecure. He is everything that Booth, Abraham Lincoln’s assassin and a flamboyant star of the stage, was not. Whereas Booth thought himself heroic and believed that killing Lincoln would win him everlasting fame and admiration, Ford sought nothing so grand. All this eventual assassin wanted was to prove himself worthy of one man: Jesse James.

We meet James in this story with his reputation set. Andrew Dominick’s screenplay, based on a novel by Ron Hansen, contains no Galletin, Missouri, no Northfield, Minnesota, no Pinkerton posse. We do witness one train robbery, the final heist of the James gang, but all that really remains to be added to James’ legend is his death. James fans may be disappointed to learn that his most notorious days are behind him, but Dominick’s approach is enthralling. It recalls Unforgiven, wherein the wannabe outlaw (in that film, The Schofield Kid) meets a criminal with a reputation so immense that by comparison the man himself can’t help but seem small (Bill Munny). Ford, who serves as an agent for the audience, spends his entire relationship with James both adoring the legend and doubting the man. Ford’s devotion to James borders on the religious, and yet he just can’t look at his gun-slinging god and completely imagine what it is to walk on water.

Maintaining this air of mystery for James means that Pitt is robbed of typical Oscar-type scenes, yet he’s a brilliant choice for the role. Pitt is naturally cool, and so he moves the way cool people do. His inherent charisma makes him the focal point of any room, and we don’t need to see James use his guns to know he’s effective with them. Pitt’s James is the proverbial sleeping elephant. Though dormant, he seems just a moment away from going on a crushing rampage. Thus we never let down our guard, and Pitt makes sure that we don’t even consider it thanks to a handful of scenes in which he flashes his well-honed intensity. In this movie Jesse James doesn’t make for a starring role, but it’s a role that needs a star, and Pitt is ideal.

The Ford-James relationship is plenty interesting, but the movie errs by occasionally wandering from it. At points, the story becomes fixated on a rivalry between Dick Liddil (the always enjoyable Paul Schneider) and James’ cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner). The episodes themselves, particularly a visit to Hite’s uncle’s wherein Liddil charms the lady of the house, are interesting and thoughtfully created. But in a movie that spans 160 minutes, such diversions halt the main narrative and become additionally frustrating in retrospect when Ford’s post-James epilogue is hurried through so quickly that we barely have time to recognize the delightful Zooey Deschanel as Ford’s wife before the curtain closes on her cameo.

As directed by Dominick, The Assassination Of Jesse James often seems determined to move no faster than the wind-blown wheat that frequents its luscious frames. The director of photography is Roger Deakins, whose numerous previous triumphs include The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo and Jarhead, and like a guy with a Terrence Malick complex, Dominick frequently lets the cinematography do the talking. Trouble is, sometimes the visuals scream. Deakins is a master of the camera who provides orgasms for the eyes contrasting yellow fields with blue skies, bathing characters in alternately romantic and menacing candlelight and using train-engine smoke as the backdrop for a classic Western silhouette. From start to finish, each shot in this film is sublime. But with so little action on screen, sometimes the visuals move into the foreground of our attention. They become the story instead of enhancing it.

And so it is that Dominick’s film looks, smells and tastes like a classic but fails to entirely sate our cinematic stomachs. The movie as a whole is much like its storybook narration by Hugh Ross: detailed, ornate and beautiful, yet ultimately incomplete. Here is a movie with a wonderfully clear sense of place but only a vague idea of what to do with it. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has magic and reverence and yet the movie isn’t quite so affected.

A film like this reminds that ultimately story wins out over style (unless style becomes the story) and that visuals fail without vitality. There isn’t a single faulty scene in The Assassination Of Jesse James, and in addition to the engaging performances of its leads, the movie benefits from arresting supporting turns from the likes of Sam Shepard and even James Carville. But ultimately the whole falls short. It’s like one of those fluffy clouds dotting Deakens’ panoramas: there but not. And it makes me appreciate Malick even more.


Unknown said...

Your timing is flawless. Just watched this Saturday night, and wondered if you'd reviewed it. Can't wait to dive in.

Unknown said...

For me this was all about the aging process, and so I appreciated the slow, steady pace. You had the past-his-prime Jesse James who actually does have something else to do before dying, which is to say growing old, mean and bitter, since he no longer has an outlet for all of that in the form of his crimes.

And you have Ford, who undergoes a classic loss of innocence, discovering that his hero as a kid was actually just a man, and a man with flaws at that. But rather than accept that his idol isn't a legend, he puts the perfect capper on the legend. Then it's his own aging process, in which like a lot of us he hopes his life's accomplishments will be respected by others, only to discover that all that truly matters is how you value your own life's work, which he does not.

Maybe overly simplistic, but that's what I was thinking about when I watched the movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

I don't think that's overly simplistic at all.

It struck me re-reading my review that I like the film a little more now than I did upon seeing it once; one of those cases where my gripes kind of fade while what I admire rises to the surface.

I still think the film drifts a little aimlessly -- without purpose or effect -- in places, and I still wish the Ford epilogue had more meat on its bones, but the "classic loss of innocence" is all the more compelling each time.

Richard Bellamy said...

Only upon first viewing did I feel that the film was a little lacking in movement - but on multiple repeat viewings I have been enthralled by the performances and the captivating narration. Jesse James achieves greatness in its stunning integration of words, images, acting, and sound.

Rick Olson said...

I love this movie, and doesn't it look fine in Blu-ray? The robbery scene has to be one of the most beautifully shot, edited and scored sequences of all time.

And I appreciate your thoughtful review, especially your analysis of Affleck and Pitt's performances. They were right on.

But I challenge the classic Hollywood (and film-school) notion that story trumps everything else. I think that it does only in the way Hollywood and the rest of the West makes and thinks about film. If you consider films from folks like Hou Hsiao-hsien or Wong Kar-wai or Jiang Zhang Ke, they don't have a lot of story, or even linear ones, and yet "Flowers of Shanghai", "In the Mood for Love," and "Still Life" are considered by many to be among the greats.

When I'm in the mood for linear, no-meat-wasted storytelling, I'll sit down with "The Terminator" or "Jaws," but a movie like "Ford" (see? I listen) has it's own pleasures, and I'm more than happy to spend a little extra time running down a rabbit trail or two with the likes of Schneider and Renner. I don't forget what the main thread is about, and I don't think most other folks do either.

Sorry to ramble on this, I really did like the piece. The "style versus substance" debate just gets to me sometimes.

Jason Bellamy said...

Rick: Thanks for the comments. I know what you mean about the style vs. substance debate, which is why there's the parenthetical "unless the style becomes the story" note, which I was kind of using using as a get-out-of-jail-free card on the topic (not effectively).

I think what I was trying to get across there (I wrote this when the film came out) is that a hum-dinger of a story can make up for boring direction/cinematography while the latter can't always make up for the former. Maybe I'm too dumb-American in my tastes there, but I'd still stand by that.

Still, I'm with you that it's unfair to consider mostly stylish (not story-driven) films to be without substance or otherwise lacking as a rule, but I'm not trying to do that here.

In this case, sometimes the style (to keep with that term) is all that I need (the train robbery scene is amazing); sometimes the film feels empty.

It's probably too controversial a topic for me to reference it in such a quick, throw-away fashion, so if I had it to do over again I'd write it differently.

Very good points. I'm glad you raised them. And, yes, awesome in Blu-ray!