February 23, 2010

Review - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Hauntingly beautiful, 'Jesse' is one of the most meticulously detailed and original biopics ever made. Coming off of acclaimed Aussie indie flick "Chopper", Andrew Dominik displays incredible filmmaking acumen with this drama that both harkens back to the classics of the genre in the 70's, and simultaneously reinvents the often cliche and gritty western as a languid artistic masterpiece with the length and depth of a classic leather-bound novel of old.

The literature metaphor is apt as at 160 minutes, 'James' certainly takes its time wandering its many wind-swept wheatfields and pin drop quiet white rooms. The plot often takes detours following the other members of the gang whilst James himself disappears for long stretches at a time. Even when off screen though, the legend and talk remains consistently about the man and/or Robert Ford's hero worship of him.

Ultimately, all of these little segues are relevant to the narrative.
Epic and intimate, brutal and poignant, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” aims higher than practically any other American film this year and hits the target with aplomb. Arriving in theaters at the time of year when audiences are assaulted by overblown attempts at seriousness made in the hopes of winning awards, “Jesse James” is that rarest of birds — an art film with mass appeal.

Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, the film explores the dynamic between legendary Old West outlaw Jesse (Brad Pitt) and the young henchman (Casey Affleck) who would betray him. Opening in 1881, the glory days of the James Gang are well behind them. Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) are forced to recruit young farmers to join them, and Bob Ford eagerly joins up, having obsessively followed Jesse’s exploits in dime novels.

As presented by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik, the film’s storyline seems closer to “I Shot Andy Warhol” than to Sam Fuller’s “I Shot Jesse James”: Ford is, essentially, a stalker, torn between emulating and worshiping his hero and then, when spurned, with destroying that hero.

Driving towards the event with an unwavering sense of inevitability so that by the time the shot is fired, everyone involved has long been resigned to their fates including James himself. Affleck as the insecure and often-humiliated Ford delivers a rich and powerful portrayal, showing off new facets of very familiar type of character. D.O.P. Roger Deakins delivers some truly extraordinary photography with some rather stark locales. His use of lighting (most notably in the train robbing sequence) and warm earth colors give the normally drab mid-West a rich and natural palette.

It's a film that ultimately requires a lot of patience with its drawn out scenes and dialogue. In fact if you were to fast-forward it at double-speed, you could probably still enjoy all the film's rewards without having to endure the glacial pacing. Then however you'd miss its rich atmosphere - the artistic landscapes, the tense love and fear the characters have of Jesse, the preciseness of the documentary-like voiceover, and the fascinating exploration of the James legend post-kill. A long journey, but one of the most rewarding in a long time.

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