October 13, 2007

REVIEW: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (A)

Background: I didn't see the last movie made about Jesse James, American Outlaws (starring Colin Farrell as James), but I think it's safe to say that the legend of James has faded quite significantly from American pop culture. My limited knowledge of his life is how I'm measuring it, though, so that might not count for much. In any case, James is back on the scene in a big way thanks to Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment, which adapted the acclaimed 1983 novel that shares its ridiculously long name. The film, which was set to be released well over a year ago but delayed due to editing issues, stars Pitt as Jesse James, Casey Affleck (Ben's younger brother) as Robert Ford, and a host of supporting actors as the rest of the James gang, notably Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). It was directed by inexperienced kiwi Andrew Dominik and filmed primarily in Alberta, Canada. Oh, and Nick Cave has a cameo as the saloon singer at the end. Weird.

Synopsis: We meet the James gang in 1881, on the eve of their final train robbery in Blue Cut, MO. Having lost most of their original crew to the elements (prison, death), Jesse (Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) James hire a ragtag group of outlaws for the job, including Charley Ford (Rockwell) and his younger brother Robert (Affleck), who grew up idolizing Jesse. Robert's creepy affection earns him acceptance and friendship from Jesse, but eventually Robert gets in the way of Jesse's return to normalcy and is sent home. Months go by and the disbanded gang goes through periods of jealousy, mistrust, betrayal, and even murder. Jesse, who is increasingly paranoid that there is a plot to turn him in for reward money, reconnects with the Ford brothers essentially to keep an eye on them. In the meantime, Robert has arranged a deal with the Governor of Missouri (James Carville!) to kill Jesse, a sensible decision since Jesse appears ready to take out both Ford brothers at any time. As evident by the title, Robert succeeds, but eventually regrets his action after he is subject to initial waves of admiration, then humiliation, and finally outright hate.

I Loved:
+ Casey Affleck's tour-de-force performance, amplified by the expectations I had beforehand - most of his screen credits recently have been in the American Pie and Ocean's trilogies.
+ The cinematography - sweeping vista views, great framing and use of blurred-edge focus, freeze-frame, slow motion, color, etc.

I Liked:
+ The narration - it was the quickest way to give us important background information about the characters.
+ The ensemble supporting cast, each excellent in their part.

I Disliked:
- That the movie felt as long as it was - if you weren't expecting it you might become restless. Basically, it dragged a bit.
- The occasional chimey, winsome xylophones in the background - these felt out of place.

I Hated:
- When Brad Pitt totally came out of character with his trademark obnoxious laugh.
- The usual gunshots to the head.

Writing - 10
Acting - 10
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 47/50= 94% = A

Last Word: Like I said, I didn't know much about Jesse James before seeing this, other than that he was a celebrated outlaw and lives on as the only reason to visit Northfield, MN, where is he curiously revered. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford strikes an excellent balance in making the viewer feel sympathy for and conviction of the title characters. Casey Affleck just went nuts with this role. Apparently Shia LaBeouf was lined up to play Robert Ford but was considered too young. LaBeouf is a legitimate rising star, but this is Affleck's breakout role as a potential leading man, although I didn't see his well-received turn in Lonesome Jim. Pitt goes through the motions of his usual character: cocky, smirky, reserved, weepy, lonely, unpredictably crazy, etc. He plays James as a mixture of his roles in Syriana, Ocean's..., and Fight Club, but somehow it works. He did well casting himself, though somebody like Christian Bale probably could have added more depth to Jesse. The Assassination is not a traditional Western, but if that's your thing you'll probably enjoy it. However it ends up being categorized, it's an intriguing and well told story, even though it runs almost as long as its title.

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