Genre: Drama and Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 40 min.
Release Date: October 19th, 2007 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Andrew Dominik Actors: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Schneider
n avant-garde, artsy manner of moviemaking is blaringly showcased in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” But it doesn’t help the snail-paced film cure its lack of excitement as it substitutes style for gravity. While the acting is first rate, most notably from Casey Affleck, the storytelling is bland and the characters themselves are almost painful to watch. Horribly ill-placed narration and unnecessary dialogue further make this the fanciest failure in filmmaking of 2007.
Chronicling adventures leading up to 1882, the story begins in Blue Cut, Missouri, where brothers Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse James (Brad Pitt) plan a train robbery to take place in the dead of night. Envious newcomer Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) pleads with the brothers to let him participate, but they shrug off the nettlesome young man. Though the town has tolerated the constant robberies conducted by the James gang for 12 years, the brothers finally start to ease away from their criminal enterprises. At the same time, Ford steadily ingratiates himself into Jesse’s life, simultaneously mingling with other gang members, including Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider). In time, Robert Ford plots to murder Jesse for a hefty bounty, but is met with regret and shame after only a brief sampling of the fame he hoped to earn from the cold-blooded deed.
A bizarre fisheye lens is used to introduce nearly every scene to the point that it becomes entirely distracting. Additionally, the fading out of each shot gives the impression that “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is technically equivalent to a television movie. If that wasn’t bad enough, a melancholy-voiced narrator (who sounds like Timon from “The Lion King”) casually prefaces every other sequence with long-winded, somewhat poetic verbiage more suited to an audio book than a motion picture. These annoying bits of unconventional filmmaking will please some (especially fans of art house and independent cinema), but combined with its decent budget and big-name actors, such techniques feel incredibly misplaced.
A lot of the film’s focus is on scenery and settings, which, if removed, could have put the running time under two hours – instead of the 160 minutes of the theatrical cut. Nearly every moment is connected to the next with a sped-up frames of clouds, the sky, grass, bits of landscape, or other inanimate objects; these seconds do little for the story, and oddly don’t even establish the locations in which the next shot takes place. The cinematography is generally vivid, with snow-covered ranches, sunny vistas, and foggy forests (plus a lauded nighttime train robbery), but again, not only do these sequences appear as if swiped from a different movie, but they’re also hardly relevant when most of the action takes place indoors.
Another aspect that couldn’t be more unsuitable is the music, which might be good on its own, but is completely contrary to the neo-Western design. Director Andrew Dominik is purposely struggling against conforming to any standards of the genre, but is left with a very plain product. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is perhaps the least western Western ever made – and that’s not a good sort of singularity.
Essentially, the film is about a little man, doomed to be undone by his infatuation with the notorious greatness of another. When Ford cannot replace James, he opts to remove him instead. But he’s left with regret and self-doubt (in something of a “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” twist) when citizens and friends despise him for killing the unduly admired bank robber. Just like Ford’s decline (fully realized at the conclusion), this potentially involving character study is dragged down by the endless overuse of pretentious style, abolishing any chance at entertainment.
– Mike Massie