Thursday, September 25, 2008

Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about hero worship, and it depicts Ford (played by Casey Affleck) as the archetypical fanboy. He romanticizes Jesse James (Brad Pitt), collecting and obsessing over dime novels that feature the famed outlaw. It becomes clear that while growing up, these fantasies were the only real company he had. Relating to other people is largely beyond him; he can't deal with anyone without fidgets and fibs. He's profoundly aware of his inadequacy; his only security comes from the aura he sees around Jesse James, and one can tell he hopes one day to be the source of such an aura himself. With the help of his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), who's a member of the James Gang, Ford joins up with his idol. Jesse finds the tongue-tied young sycophant alternately amusing and annoying. At one point, he asks, "Do you want to become like me, or do you want to be me?"

Ford's relationship with Jesse, which went from idolatry to a disillusionment that led Ford to murder him, might make for an interesting film. But Dominik, working from a well-regarded novel by Ron Hansen, doesn't provide it. The film is a shapeless meander, and at two hours and forty minutes, it is tediously long. The first half, which depicts the collapse of the James Gang until only Jesse, Ford, and Charley are left, is a near-incomprehensible mess. The scenes don't build into each other, and many of the characters are so poorly differentiated it's hard to tell them apart. The second half, which deals with Ford's betrayal and eventual murder of Jesse at the behest of the Missouri governor (James Carville), is much clearer, but Dominik doesn't give it any dramatic momentum. The only thing driving the movie is the anticipatory dread one gets from the knowledge that Ford will inevitably gun Jesse down.

One wonders if Dominik even thinks he's telling a story. His approach to the material appears modeled after Terrence Malick's work. The film's interest in narrative seems less about dramatization than in using it as a taking-off point for poetic visuals. Malick can get so caught up in his imagery that he loses sight of the story he's telling, but his tropes are generally quite inventive. With Dominik, it's one hackneyed image after another: repeated shots of clouds rolling by in fast-motion, and wind blowing through wheat fields. Dominik is also repetitive and unimaginative when it comes to setting up scenes. I lost count of how many times he opens one with figures in long shot against a landscape, with the camera pulling back until we see that we're looking at them through a window, and then it keeps pulling back until we see that they're being watched by another character. He doesn't even make competent use of voiceover narration; it often just redundantly describes what the film is showing. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and the set and costume designers give the film an austerely elegant look, but the scenes are so poorly conceived and staged that it seems like dressing a chimp in Armani.

That said, the austere compositions work to create some dynamism with Casey Affleck's performance as Ford. The refined look of the images creates a strong counterpoint with Ford's squirrelly awkwardness, and it emphasizes how out of place he is and how uncomfortable he is inside his own skin. Affleck's performance also finds an effective contrast with the steely-eyed wariness Sam Shepard gives Frank James in an early scene. But I don't feel Affleck's performance, while strong, deserves all the plaudits it's received; it feels too deliberate and mannered.

Brad Pitt convinces one of Jesse James' charisma, but he can't pull the disparate strands of the character together. His Jesse becomes increasingly unravelled over the course of the film, with growing fears of betrayal from every corner. He has no idea who he can trust. But one can't reconcile the paranoid displays and emotional outbursts with Pitt's larger characterization; they seem to come out of nowhere, and one watches them with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. James Carville has a strong presence as the Missouri governor who wants Jesse James killed, and Alison Elliott gives some snap to her line readings as Ford's sister Martha, but the other performers don't make much of an impression.

Ultimately, Andrew Dominik seems undone by hero worship of his own. He seems so enthralled with the idea of recreating Terrence Malick's tone that he gave little attention to understanding how Malick's effects are achieved. He's oblivious to his inability to work effectively in that mode, and he didn't develop the story or the characters enough to catch him if he failed. At the beginning of the film, Ford says, "I got qualities that don't come shinin' through right at the outset." One can almost hear Dominik saying this in his own defense, but what Dominik seems to think are his qualities don't come shining through at all.

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