Thursday, July 17, 2008

#20: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Written by Andrew Dominik (based on the novel by Ron Hansen)
Released October 10, 2007

"I can't figure it out. Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"

Not that I put a lot of value into the annual Academy Awards, but when Into the Wild was denied an Oscar nomination for Best Picture last year, I was a little furious. Don't get me wrong: I love the Coen brothers, and really did enjoy No Country for Old Men. No doubt it was one of the best movies of the year... it just wasn't the best, in my opinion. It wasn't even their best movie (AHEM Miller's Crossing AHEM).

Now I've found a second movie to be robbed of that Best Picture Oscar: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a masterfully crafted, deliberately paced Western about celebrity and infamy.

Be forewarned, movie lovers: when I say deliberately paced, you can read between the lines and assume I mean "Slow." I love a good, slow movie; Solaris and Unbreakable immediately spring to mind. If you have a problem with films that aren't afraid to take their time and linger on the moment, this ain't the movie for you.

If, however, you're still with me, Assassination is pretty incredible. Shot by director of photography Roger Deakins (whom, among many beautiful shot movies, photographed No Country for Old Men) defines the importance of the role of a director of photography. The movie is full of gorgeous visuals, from creeping clouds to warm rays of sunlight on worn wooden floorboards to the dark violet blood spilling out of a dead man's head. Even typically unheralded film making roles like lighting, provided by Martin Keough, will become (pardon the pun) illuminated.

Of course, the movie simply wouldn't work without great acting. Brad Pitt, who for me can be hit or miss, knocks it out of the park as the increasingly frightening, menacing and paranoid Jesse James. The real revelation is Casey Affleck, arguably the actor who was truly robbed in the Supporting Actor category by an impressive Javier Bardem in No Country. Affleck (who, as I previously mentioned, was magnetic in Gone Baby Gone) is pretty miraculous here, making his Robert Ford alternately creepy, pathetic and ultimately sympathetic as his character overcomes his admiration for James and comes to envy and despise him as he slowly realizes the unsavory human being that exists behind the media-manipulated facade of his idol.

The supporting cast includes Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Michael Parks, Ted Levine and the always impressive Sam Rockwell as Ford's dimwitted and mournful brother Charlie. There is not a weak link among them, and even political consultant James Carville makes the most of a brief cameo as the man who arranges for the murder of James.

At first, The Assassination of Jesse James seems to be an elegy to James and the loss of a legend; the real revelation is that it becomes a poetic and sad sort of tribute to the man who was vilified for shooting a villain in the back. The real tragedy winds up not being the assassination mentioned in the title, but the aftermath of the murder and its effect on Ford's life.

My only complaint with the movie is a somewhat significant one. I have previously alluded to my dislike of narration in films if not handled carefully. The narration here is pretty ridiculous, making the most egregious of errors when it comes to storytelling: SHOW, DON'T TELL. I lost count of how many times the voiceover was literally describing the exact actions that character on screen was performing. "He drank from a glass on the nightstand," as the actor drinks from a glass on the nightstand. I actually found myself yelling, "No shit, Sherlock" at the screen at one point. When you're making a slow paced movie 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, I think the least you can do is trust that the viewer who is willingly along for this kind of slow ride will have the mental capacity to put some of this shit together on their own.

For more on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford:
- More information at Wikipedia and IMDB
- A Wikipedia entry on Jesse James, and one on Robert Ford
- Buy it at the official site.

The trailer, at YouTube:


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