Friday, September 23, 2011

Overlooked Gems #7: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Grade: 96 (A)

In terms of recent years for movies, few compare to 2007. Even at the time many critics remarked upon the quantity and quality of great films released in the year: Ratatouille. Into the Wild. I’m Not There. Death Proof. The Bourne Ultimatum. Once. Michael Clayton. Sweeney Todd. Hot Fuzz. Knocked Up. Superbad. Atonement. And the year’s trifecta of masterpieces: Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and my favorite film of the 2000s, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Yes, 2007 was a great year for film, and the vast majority of the films were either honored at the time (No Country, There Will Be Blood) or found wider audiences shortly thereafter (Zodiac). Yet with any great year, there’s a great film or two that slips through the cracks, and 2007 had a doozy: Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. My memory of the film is strong: released early in the Fall of 2007, I saw the film in theatres on my 17th birthday, and it left a lasting impression, which makes its relative obscurity all the more confounding. The film was mostly well-reviewed, and many film critics put it on their lists of the best films of the year. Yet four years later the film has not had anything more than a bare-bones DVD release and has not gained the acclaim it deserves.

 The film chronicles the fall of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), the famous outlaw who became a legend far long before his death. The James Gang is falling apart, on a final train-robbery before disbanding. It features Jesse’s wise, ornery older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), his short-tempered cousin Wood Hite (a pre-fame Jeremy Renner), suave cohort Dick Liddle (Paul Schneider), slow Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). Charley has brought along his skittish little brother Bob (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old kid who’s grown up idolizing the legendary Jesse James and who believes he’s destined for great things. Only in his mid-thirties himself, Jesse looks and acts older than his age. Years of robbing, shooting, and being shot at has taken a lot out of him. He has two children and a wife. And as a legend, he has reason to suspect that the world is out to get him. But he starts to suspect his friends, the former members of his gang, anyone whose paths he may cross. Bob, meanwhile, has to deal with being underestimated by anyone and everyone he meets as a boy, a weirdo, and a “nincompoop”, as he says. When the two share scenes, it’s a story of a man and his idol, one enamored while the other is alternatively annoyed, amused, or flat out creeped out. And as the Ford brothers get closer to the increasingly paranoid Jesse, their options narrow.

There’s so much to admire about The Assassination that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Perhaps it’s best to start with aesthetic pleasures: Roger Deakins’ photography is as gorgeous and lush as any film he has ever made. The often has the look of an old, hazy photograph, suggesting a forgotten time and place the characters refuse to leave. James is a relic of a dying era, living on borrowed time. And the melancholy Nick Cave/Warren Ellis score serves as a sad soundtrack to his final days and to the tragic end of Robert Ford. Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik builds up the Jesse James legend only to bring it down to its sad reality and humanize the so-called “coward” Robert Ford (an approach that supposedly served well his debut film Chopper, although I have not seen that film). The film’s use of narration gives background information without ever feeling condescending or unnecessary, playing almost like a colorful novel. The film’s rhythms are in direct contrast to Walter Hill’s 1980 film The Long Riders, a quick-paced film that cut right to the bone of the Jesse James story. This film’s deliberate pace has been compared to that of the films of Terrence Malick, although the film is far more talkative and flowery than Malick’s works. If there’s one unfortunate caveat to the film, it is not a flaw so much as the fact that the first 3 ½ to 4 hour cut was edited down, and the finished product feels like a part from an even greater masterpiece. As it is, the 2 ½ hour version is still a great film.

The film is populated with colorful characters and tangents, some funny (Frank James and Dick Liddle are particularly fun), some sad (Bob’s relationship with a saloon singer played by Zooey Deschanel late in the film, Charley as a man forced into terrible circumstances by his brother). But the film is undoubtedly driven by the two leads: Pitt is frightening and sad as Jesse James, a man who already seems like a ghost on this earth, while Affleck is wide-eyed and fidgety without ever seeming over the top (Shia LaBouef was initially considered for the role; now that would have been terrible). He becomes more jealous and hurt as the film goes on, and he seems as a man with only one choice left if he wants to survive, let alone become a legend. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, but don’t be fooled: he is the film’s protagonist, and its heart. First he’s obsessed with the legend he grew up loving, then he’s humiliated and frightened by the mean-spirited reality behind his idol, and finally a man on his way out of his sad, disappointing life.

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