Monday, May 19, 2014

The Finest Work by All Involved: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007)

The outlaw and mass murderer, Jesse James, has been the subject of dozens of documentaries and fictionalized films and television shows over the years. From silent films to a "The Brady Bunch" episode, we seem to be fascinated with him. I haven't seen all of these incarnations, but I have seen enough to declare this film not only the definitive piece about James, but also the greatest Western of the last forty years.

Jesse (Brad Pitt) and brother Frank (Sam Shepard) James are continuing their robbing ways in the American Midwest. Their choice of gang members has fallen off, as they must resort to petty thieves and ignorant backwoods men- including a set of brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck) Ford. Jesse is a paranoid manic-depressive now, after years on the run. His wife (Mary-Louise Parker) is more than understanding, taking care of their young children at home while he is away "on business" or whatever cover story he finds himself using. After yet another train robbery that doesn't net nearly as much as expected, the gang scatters and awaits their cut. Rumors of double crosses abound, and the gang, which includes dumb-as-rocks Ed (Garret Dillahunt), James' cousin Wood (Jeremy Renner) and the womanizing Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), begin fighting amongst themselves.

Writer/director Andrew Dominik does an interesting thing, as we watch the scattered gang, in tangents from the main titular story. Luckily, they are as fascinating as the James saga. An unbalanced Jesse begins hunting down his gang, sure they are going to turn him in, either killing them or luckily having them turn on each other. He keeps the Ford brothers close, however, and Dominik tells us that the Fords' deal with the law may be the only way Jesse James will find peace.

Based on a novel by Ron Hansen, audiences didn't seem to take to this meditative film. It moved too slow, and was full of Terence Malick-inspired imagery. Nominated for two Oscars, Affleck was a victim to Javier Bardem's menacing villain in "No Country for Old Men," and Roger Deakins' perfect cinematography lost to "There Will Be Blood." In my opinion, most of the cast should have been nominated, as well as the crew. While movies have the ability to transport the viewer to another time, or another life, this film does it so well, it's two and a half hour running time flies by.

Brad Pitt is mesmerizing as Jesse James. His performance is his best onscreen. He doesn't make James out to be a hero, and watching this mythic Robin Hood suffer psychologically from what he has done is interesting. The supporting cast all score (except James Carville in a small role...can we stop stunt-casting politicians and wonks in film and television, please?). Mary-Louise Parker fans were disappointed with her lack of dialogue in her role as Jesse's wife, but she is still able to find an immense presence with her role.

Casey Affleck should have won the Oscar. Nothing against Bardem, he was great, but Affleck's performance is one of those great jobs that should be studied by acting students. Never has the character trait of "awkwardness" been shown so well onscreen. Affleck's cracking voice and toothy uncomfortable grin are never comical. He is nothing short of brilliant. Bob is the constant butt of jokes from the rest of the characters, and Affleck's reaction to finding his cohorts going through his treasured James memorabilia is sad, pathetic, and had me rewatching the scene just to see Affleck's skill. Pitt, Affleck, and Rockwell's work when James is shot is suspenseful, even though you know what will happen, and Dominik and editors Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor shine in this great segment. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' musical score is so fitting and memorable, I can't unhear it when I find my mind drifting, and Hugh Ross' narration fills in any spaces a viewer needs in the story (the original cut of the film was four hours), and his voice turns Hansen and Dominik's words into poetry.

Every piece of celluloid Deakins shoots here is a work of art. Every single one. From the breathtaking train robbery, to the final frozen frame of Affleck's face, every shot is meticulous and stunning. Characters simply looking out wavy window panes take on a life and story of their own. Kudos to the makeup and costuming as well. Much was made of older actors being cast in much younger roles, but here it works. The fact is that rural folk in the 1880's probably aged a little faster than today, you know?

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is one of those films I find myself appreciating the more often I see it. It would definitely fit well into my top ten favorite films of all-time, and it is certainly the best film of 2007. You can have your stupid "American Outlaws," I'll stick with this masterful vision. (* * * * *) out of five stars.