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Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This is only the second feature directed by Andrew Dominik, and the first he has made on a large scale with a big Hollywood budget. It is a phenomenal piece of work. Visually, The Assassination of Jesse James is more alive than any movie I’ve seen this year, other than the very different Across the Universe. This gifted New Zealander brings a fresh perspective to an aging genre and to a story that has been told more than a few times already. You may be reminded at some points of Bonnie and Clyde, Days of Heaven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but Dominik has a powerful style all his own.

However, the dramatic impact and the narrative flow are not as strong as the photography (by Roger Deakins), the editing, the whole visual conception and control. This is primarily because the script is a mixed bag, and because Brad Pitt, while not bad, is somewhat less than electrifying as Jesse James. You never catch Pitt being a bad actor here, but this film needs him to be more than competent – he needs to be the powerful center of gravity for the story. And he doesn’t manage to do it.

That’s unfortunate, because several of the other performances are very striking indeed, beginning with Casey Affleck as the other title character, the teenage would-be gunslinger Robert Ford. Affleck’s Ford is simultaneously naïve and dangerous, folksy and coldly calculating, a loser and a sharp-witted opportunist. It’s an extraordinarily vivid performance – you can’t take your eyes off him. And in supporting roles, Sam Rockwell, as Robert Ford’s more stable, less loopily ambitious brother, and Paul Schneider, as the randiest, funniest member of the James Gang (though he’s still capable of startling, scary violence), are just as good as Affleck. This is some of the most flavorsome character acting in any recent movie.

The film is too long (160 minutes), and it loses and regains the tension of its story a few times. But it’s never boring. The use of a narrator, sounding at times like a PBS special, is effective in filling in narrative gaps, although these scenes are in a different style from the rest of the movie.

It looks as though Warner Bros. may have already written this off as a commercial failure, an overpriced art film, after its disappointing limited runs in large cities. So catch it while you can – it deserves to be enjoyed on a large screen. And I’m sure we’ll be seeing much more from this brilliant new director.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Zilli said...

Good post.

11/10/2008  

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