The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This film's not quite the masterpiece it wants to be, but I liked it, liked it a lot even. It's a western without many of the standard elements: no shoot-outs, here, no chases on horses, no cowboy hats, even, just bowlers. It's almost as much a period drama as a western, in fact. It's a movie I'd sooner recommend to my mother than to my little brother, which you don't expect from a western.

I usually hate movies that are so self-serious and solemn, but I found myself entranced by this one, its slow pace and elegiac tone, maybe because it's content not to give any straight answers. We spend a lot of time with Jesse James and Bob Ford, we get the feeling that we know them, but their precise motivation remains opaque. There are a lot of themes here, from hero worship to celebrity culture, but luckily Dominik doesn't try to convey any specific message, and the assassination of the title is left wonderfully ambigious. Some of the symbolism is heavy handed (Jesse playing with and then killing the two snakes comes to mind), but while this bothered me to no end in The Brave One, here it seemed to fit.

I know a lot of people dismiss Brad Pitt, and he does tend to pick lighter, easier roles he can just coast through on charisma, but he's perfect as Jesse James. Sure, he falls back on his familiar ticks, opening his mouth and showing his tongue, squinting, but who cares when it works? His Jesse is fascinating and charismatic, but you never forget that he is also dangerous and unpredictable.

And then, Casey Affleck. I agree his is the knock-out performance here, keeping his Robert Ford exactly on the fine line between repulsive, sympathetic, and pathetic. He gives you the willies, as another character says at some point, but at the same time you want to put your arms around his protectively and yell out "he's just a kid!". Affleck is 32, but he is totally believable as a gawky 19 year old still finding himself (and imdb tells me he studied physics, which raises him a few points more in my esteem). I could go on about the supporting cast too, but I'll just point out that Garett Dillahunt from Deadwood and John from Cincinnati is great as well.

Why not a masterpiece, then? Well, it's a pacing thing, I think. The coda feels too short, and other parts feel a little uneven. I think the elliptic storytelling works, but it just doesn't feel quite right. I also think the narration had some problems: I had a hard time getting used to it, and it is sometimes a little too explicit about what the characters are feeling. I'm not against it, and I believe the sectioning of the story into "chapters" by the narration was a good idea, but it feels like it could have used a little more tweaking.

I know, this film has been tweaked with forever already, but just like in poetry you need the exact right word in the exact right place, a film can only be a masterpiece if every cut or shot feels like it couldn't possibly have been any different, and this film still feels too fluid for that, too wavering. Too many threads are left dangling.

I do think it's a timeless movie, in the sense that it feels detached from any time and place, feels like it's on some different place, and I can imagine returning to it in ten years, in twenty, if only for some gorgeous images - like Jesse waiting for a train and disappearing in the fog - and the absolutely beautiful Nick Cave soundtrack.


cjKennedy said...

The person I went to the movies with this weekend preferred seeing In the Valley of Elah to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (I love typing that out), but this is next on my list.

I can't say this will be the case with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (There I go again), but sometimes also one of the key ingredients for a masterpiece is time. It's good to swish a movie around in your mouth and let it linger a minute, really hit all your taste buds, then maybe take another couple of sips. Sometime down the road, you start to realize it's one for the ages where in other cases something that knocked you out right away begins to fade from memory.

You've said enough about it to give me hope that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could be one of the good ones.

Or maybe not. Time will tell.

Hedwig said...

I do love typing out that full name too... The Assassination of Jesse James by the Cowatrd Robert Ford. And it's not like it doesn't have a function: it tells you right ahead that this movie is not going to be about the plot, since pretty much all of it is contained in the title - except the coda, that is. I suppose whether I think of this as a masterpiece or not depends in large part on whether I grow to like that coda, but your right, sometimes movies have to stay in your mind for a while before they can be called masterpieces. I look forward to revisiting this movie in a year or two, in any case. And I'm very curious to hear your thoughts about it, if and when you go to see it.

cjKennedy said...

I'm hopefully going to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford :) in the next day or two. Certainly by the weekend. I've got to review the Haggis movie and then hopefully I'll have a few days to see and digest The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford before the new Wes Anderson movie comes along.

I love this time of year for movies! I don't know what release patterns are like for you in Nederland, but here it seems like every week between now and the end of the year has at least one potentially great movie. Everyone is lining up to get noticed for The Oscars.

cjKennedy said...

Ok, I saw it last weekend and I loved it, but I'm kind of choking on the review. I hate when that happens.

Anyway, aside from the cinematography, I loved the performances, especially Casey Affleck. I have to say, Brad Pitt surprised me too, in a good way. He's the superstar and will get most of the attention, but he's actually deserving of much of it. The rest of the supporting cast, Sam Rockwell and the guy who played Dick Liddil especially were also great.

Without the performances, the movie could've fallen flat. Plotwise, it's not the most exciting movie to come along, but just watching these guys go was a pleasure.