by Mel Valentin
Adapted from Ron Hansen's well-regarded novel of the same name and directed by Andrew Dominik ("Chopper"), "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," de-mythologizes one folk hero (or anti-hero), Jesse James, and depicts another, the “Coward Robert Ford” of the title, sympathetically. Lyrical, ruminative, elegiac, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" isn’t for everyone. Moviegoers hoping for an action-oriented Western will be disappointed. For that, they’re better off catching the recent remake of "3:10 to Yuma." More patient moviegoers, though, will be rewarded with a richly immersive meditation on the nature of celebrity and its often unintended consequences.At thirty-four and already a folk hero fictionalized in dime-store novels, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) has managed to survive and even prosper as a career criminal. A former loyalist to the Confederate cause and a guerilla fighter along the Missouri-Kansas border, James, his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), and their associates became known for their intricately planned, meticulously executed bank and train robberies. In September 1981, James, his brother, and several members of their gang, including Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), and his younger, impressionable brother, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), stage a night-time attack on a train near Glendale, Missouri. The robbery nets the gang less than expected, but they go their separate ways. James has just five months before he died at Robert Ford’s hands.
"Flawed, overlong, but nonetheless compelling filmmaking."
Before the robbery, however, both Charley and Robert Ford tried to ingratiate themselves with the James brothers. The older, more experienced Charley is readily accepted, but the overeager, overanxious, hero-worshipping Robert isn’t, at least not at first. His constant flattery, however, convinces Jesse to let him return with him home to St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse lives a seemingly normal life (under an assumed name, of course) with his wife (and first cousin) Zee (Mary-Louise Parker), and their two children. Robert sees his idol up close and personal, his shifting, mercurial moods, his violent temper, his pensive, poetic moments. Robert Ford, however, is nothing if not ambitious. He wants to be as famous and feared as James. As his respect and admiration for Jesse diminishes and the fear of betrayal increases, Ford begins to consider an amnesty proposal from the governor of Missouri, Thomas Crittenden (James Carville).
Overlong by at least twenty minutes and burdened by too many characters, too many subplots, and thus too many tangents, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nonetheless paced to emphasize the longueurs that characterized living conditions in late 19th-century rural America (i.e., before the advent of mass media). Conversations slip into tangents, linger on the mundane, or end inclusively, clouds drift by promising rain or snow, the seasons change, each moment brought sharply into relief by the fears, anxieties, paranoia, and the constant threat of violence, all more or less leading to and from Jesse James’ “assassination” (a term usually ascribed for politically motivated murder and not the death of an outlaw). Set out ambiguously, Jesse James’ death scene suggests that James welcomed his own death and the martyrdom that followed.
Ford emerges less as the "coward" of the title and more as a naive misguided character, by turns seduced and overwhelmed by fame and celebrity, then crushed mercilessly by the dime-store mythologizing that turned Jesse James' into a Southern Robin Hood. It’s in following Ford that Dominick breaks unnecessarily from storytelling conventions. After delivering the “assassination” of the title and its immediate aftermath, with Ford initially celebrated as a hero, Jesse James’ body photographed and displayed liked a museum attraction for a steady stream of wide-eyed gawkers, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has, true to its title, delivered on the dramatic moment it’s been building toward from the first scene. Dominik, however, lingers, following Ford’s later years until his death ten years later in Creede, Colorado. Most, if not all, of the post-Jesse James scenes could have been handled via montage, voiceover narration, and/or title cards, but it's a minor problem overall.
Story and themes aside, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is all the more impressive due to the top-notch cinematography, music, production design, and acting. The striking, painterly compositions and elegant camera moves are the work of cinematography veteran Roger Deakins. In addition to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Deakins' other recent efforts include Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah (currently in release) and the soon-to-be-released Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. Deakins first collaborated with the Coen Brothers on Barton Fink sixteen years ago. He's also worked with Sam Mendes (Jarhead), M. Night Shyamalan (The Village, Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Norman Jewison (The Hurricane), Edward Zwick (The Siege, Courage Under Fire), and Martin Scorsese (Kundun).Musically, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is no less impressive, thanks to a collaborative score by writer/songwriter Nick Cave ("The Proposition") and Warren Ellis (no, not the graphic novelist and comic book writer). The score is never impressive, striking the right balance between evocative originality and aesthetic function, i.e., to support the film's emotional beats and dramatic plot turns. Likewise with the production design by Patricia Norris that emphasizes the sparse, Spartan lifestyles of the outlaws, including Jesse James' last modest residence and the extravagant, decadent lifestyle that the wealthy enjoyed, as we briefly see during a governor's ball in Missouri.
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originally posted: 10/05/07 16:17:13