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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford   C+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik (based on the novel by Ron Hansen)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shephard, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Zooey Deschanel, Sam Rockwell.

Review by Rob Vaux

I went to college in Northfield, Minnesota, where Jesse James and his followers launched a disastrous bank robbery attempt in 1876. The event is commemorated every September in full small-town Americana mode, topped by a reenactment of the holdup and subsequent gunfight that left most of the bandits dead or captured. Northfield is always quick to point out that they are celebrating the locals who thwarted the robbery -- humble citizens unwilling to stand by while the James-Younger gang made off with their savings. Yet none of their names are on the festival flyers. For all its admirable protestations, the town knows who the real selling point is, and while it may call its festival the "Defeat of Jesse James Days," that first word isn't the one that sticks in people's minds.

That's the condition that writer-director Andrew Dominik wishes to explore with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He posits the notorious outlaw as a protean celebrity, lionized by newspapers and dime novels which used romantic balderdash to cover up his sordid criminality. Ford becomes a sort of Mark David Chapman to James' John Lennon -- idolizing him right up until the moment the trigger is pulled. As a character study of these two figures, the film can be fascinating: examining the early media distortion that turned an infamous outlaw into a folk hero, while simultaneously applauding and vilifying the man who finally gave him what was coming to him. James is played by Brad Pitt as a sort of self-made god, alternately bemused and troubled by the effect he has on others. Ford is played by Casey Affleck as a sensitive puppy dog, easily wounded and hoping to steal some of James' romanticized swagger for himself. They meet through Ford's brother (Sam Rockwell), participate in an armed robbery together, and gradually develop into... well, not friends strictly, but something closer to dysfunctional siblings.

Dominik concentrates all of his energy on understanding how these two interacted with each other and what might have gone on inside their skulls in the months leading up to James' death. His screenplay, from the novel by Ron Hansen, gives them the requisite sense of depth (aided by Pitt and Affleck, who commit to their roles with unspoken intensity) and charts their march towards destiny with measured, calculated steps. Unfortunately, it becomes so focused on the unseen that the images onscreen expand unchecked into exasperating tedium. This movie just keeps going... on and on, through beautiful but interchangeable piece of Alberta scenery, gorgeous but soul-draining music from Nick Cave, and supporting characters whose carefully articulated dialogue blurs them to undifferentiated drones. The sheer craftsmanship on display ensures a modicum of goodwill, but at two hours and 40 minutes, even the most patient souls may begin to squirm.

Worse yet, the meat of the piece may require multiple viewings in order to fully grasp... though admittedly, it can probably hold up to the scrutiny. Dominik deserves praise for the subtlety in the way he brings out James' psychological nuances, and the film certainly makes for a unique variation on the perception of celebrity. Everyone around James is in awe of him, and also a little afraid of him. Moody and unpredictable, he acts with seemingly random abandon -- implying that he can spot their secret thoughts, appearing unannounced in the middle of the night, and unleashing deadly fury just often enough to keep everyone around him in a state of jangled nerves. His paranoia grows as the film goes on: America is slowly being tamed and as the forces of the law tighten their grip on the countryside, he finds himself running out of places to hide. As a member of his inner circle, Ford is at once safe from his wrath and in constant peril of being shot as a traitor. When James kills several other members of the gang, the young man senses the need to defend himself at all costs -- mixed with a burning desire for fame, admiration/envy of James, and plain old-fashioned greed for the reward money to explain why he finally does what 15 years of outlaw living couldn't do to the country's most wanted criminal.

All of that lies beneath the surface, and for those with the patience to winnow it out, Jesse James may prove rewarding. But the bleak landscapes and clipped conversations surrounding it prove far too exhausting to make the task enjoyable. Plot developments come slowly and with interminable consideration. Authenticity strains against the measured artifice of Dominik's screenplay, rendering both a little suspect. Perhaps most importantly, we see little of the impact James has beyond his immediate circle. The feeding frenzy that surrounded his death comes seemingly out of the blue, and the romantic "Robin Hood of the Plains" persona attached to his name is left for the audience to infer rather than see. As if uncertain of his chosen course, Dominik adds voice-over narrative (performed by Hugh Ross) to punctuate those points which the rest of the film never gets around to developing.

Together, they render Jesse James more chore than exploration: a gorgeous postcard of the Heaven's Gate variety that speaks of great things but never finds the time to reach them. Its profundities become lost in meditation, and while nothing this deliberately paced can be said to wander, little would be lost with a more merciful running time. It has its joys and I suspect it will age rather well, but Dominik demands an unnecessary level of commitment to make his point. I wouldn't sign on unless you're prepared for a very, very long ride.

Review published 09.21.2007.

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