The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Reviews
Before I provide further praise, a few criticisms. I'm okay with long films with rather slow pacing, but I felt the middle should have been tightened up more, and have the final half hour drawn out more. As for the final scene, I'd rather have seen it than heard narration. The rest of the narration was hit or miss for me. I liked the music, but I wish it were more varied. More screen time for Zooey Deschanel would also have been nice, as would have been a few more (no more than 3) small scenes of violence, or one big set piece of it.
As much as I enjoyed the direction (despite the above issues), the cinematography by Roger Deakins is the real star of the show here. Some of the shots and compositions on display are so beautiful I can't really do them justice. The cast is great, even if some of the actors have little screen time. Despite screen time amounts, all performers are excellent, especially Pitt and Affleck. Renner and Rockwell are closely tied behind them for the best acting. About Pitt and Affleck: it's a toss-up for who's more impressive. Pitt, on one hand has to portray someone younger than his actual age, pull it off, and also downplay his ego and status as an A-lister. It works to his favor. Affleck on the other hand, much like the character, has to step out of the role of "the young one" and come into his own. Ford is a tough role because it would be so easy to over do it. His Oscar nomination is proof he succeeded.
This was my first exposure to director Andrew Dominik, and he has impressed me. At first it seemed like this was a Terrence Malick film, and I mean that as a compliment, but also as a way of saying what you should expect should you decide to see this (and you should).
This is a great film, but definitely not for all audiences. It's a scholar's dream too, as there is plenty of stuff to pore over, analyze, and discuss. If you've come this far in my review, then you'll probably know if this is one for you.
Retelling of the last months in the life of the legendary outlaw Jesse James and how his reputation was faltering. His gang had disbanded - either dead or in prison and Jesse was beginning to suffer increasing paranoia. After carrying out a train robbery he heads for Kentucky, only to reappear in Missouri for a bank robbery. Two brothers; Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) are part of his new gang but Robert has a dangerous and obsessive idolisation of Jesse and one that would finally be the outlaws undoing.
Few film's ever get away with having a title as long as this one and even fewer get away with the manner in which this film is made. That's testament to the skill of Andrew Dominik and the backing of Brad Pitt who refused to yield to Hollywood studios when they wanted to tinker with Dominik's vision. Right from the opening, brutal, train robbery, this film's style is apparent. It's sense of realism is what commands your attention; it goes on to depict stark expansive landscapes, explosive bullet wounds and guns that don't shoot straight but the actual gunslinging is kept to a minimum, while it focuses on the characters themselves. The pace of the film is deliberate, adding to the ethereal feel throughout and one that reminded me of the approach that director Terrence Malick would use. Roger Deakins' cinematography is also a thing of absolute beauty. The entirety of every single frame of this picture is stunningly captured with meticulous attention to detail and Dominik's direction is near flawless. He lingers long on shots and subtle facial expressions and captures the uneasiness in the characters and their situations. By using this methodical style, he manages to get under the skin of his two leading characters and allows both Pitt and especially Affleck the room to deliver sensational performances. Pitt is entirely commanding and charismatic, adding just enough of a glimmer of danger without losing the audience's sympathy and Affleck is on top, creepy and unsettling, form. The chemistry between the two hints at all sorts of possibilities - including homoerotic tension. These two share an uneasy relationship and between them, there are contemporary issues at play; the nature of celebrity and hero worship and the difference between 'the man and the myth'. Even over 100 years ago they had this but although Dominik delivers this insight, he never fully explores it, leaving it all just a bit too ambiguous. I'm not looking for a film to spell everything out for me. On the contrary but for a film that languishes on detail and mood, it could have taken a little time to further explore these themes and the characters' motivations. There's a sense of bewilderment as to why James would even tolerate having Ford around when he, seemingly, knew that something wasn't quite right about him. He was aware that sooner or later he would meet his impending fate but it's unclear why he'd open himself up to it. Another area that lacks any attention, is the females in these men's lives. They are fleetingly visited but are ultimately insignificant and the likes of Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschannel are reduced to mere cameos. I can only assume that these issues could maybe make more sense in Dominik's original 4 hour cut - that played at the Venice film festival before a widespread release reduced the film to it's 2hour 40mins duration. That being said, this is still an aesthetically successful endeavour that, although not fully deserving of the masterpiece status that many consider it to be, it's not far off it.
A contemplative and demanding film that requires the utmost patience. It's highly ambitious, artistic and regularly poetic. Quite simply, it's beautifully done and I found lots to admire but it meanders and like the title itself, it's just a tad too long winded.
The direction, cinematography, and cast are all excellent. Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, yearning, coveting, and in his own words, "destined for great things." Brad Pitt plays James, and he's terribly underrated as an actor. He's suspicious, manipulative, and above-all, larger than life. The rest of the cast, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, and others are similarly impressive. I loved the narration carrying the story, often intrusive in other films. The palpable paranoia and bleak cinematography set this film apart from others; it really is an achievement. Jesse James is intense though slow moving. Its not for the short attention span crowd.
I wasn't huge on the lead performances - Casey Affleck seems more content to go with semi-stupid than naive, as a basic reading of the character might have suggested (one character in the movie goes so far as to call him smart, which: hell naw). Brad Pitt is mostly cardboard and generally not the first person I'd notice in any given scene. It's an interesting treatment of the character, as a shadow lurking in the corners of the room, quietly observing and only peeking out to interact sometimes, but Pitt to me isn't an actor who's particularly great at introspection so much as loud, boisterous voice work and physicality. His two best turns, in Burn after Reading and Inglourious Basterds, are consequently two of his most colorful. Their support is uniformly great - Sam Rockwell more or less steals the show.
At the end of the day, this didn't at all deserve its failure. It's wonderful work, endearing and rich though not completely perfect. I wish Dominik was a more prolific director, because I think he exhibits some great versatility as a filmmaker and it would be exciting to see him work more often. You can't rush art, I guess.
The Assassination of Jesse James is about as far from your usual shoot 'em up, bang bang, western yarn, as you can get. It's actually a character study. A particularly measured and slowly paced character study. But it works on the strength of it's great cast and solid writing.
Casey Affleck is wonderful as the unsettling, perpetually nervous, shifty man whose unnerving obsession with Jesse James is uncomfortably obvious. And Brad Pitt continues to impress, as he presents James as a charismatic, dangerous, and paranoid man (though his accent was a little iffy, at times). The supporting cast of talented actors like Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, and Zooey Deschanel, are all favorites of mine, and all perfectly suited for their roles.
Some people may find the pace to be a little TOO glacial, but it would be a crime for a movie with cinematography this beautiful to be rushed. Some of the backdrops and settings are almost breathtaking, with snow-covered roads and fields of grain featuring colors that seem almost too vivid to be natural. I'm a big fan of striking scenery in my movies, and this one certainly gets my seal of approval in that regard.
The Assassination of Jesse James is not a short movie, and it's value is in the interactions of the characters, not in the robberies (which we see only one of) and romanticized-western action that we would normally associate with the near-legendary story of the James Gang. I found it to be worthwhile. It raises questions about what makes a man a hero or a villian in the public's eyes, and by the end of the film, we find out that those questions have interesting answers.