The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2008-01-10 16:43
What it's about:

The film is a detailed examination of the last days of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), perhaps the most iconic American outlaw of all time. The story begins with the James gang's last heist – a train robbery at Blue Cut Missouri – where Jesse reluctantly agrees to take on young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) as his "sidekick". But, though Jesse has been his personal hero since childhood, Robert is torn between admiration and jealousy.

What we thought of it:

For a movie about an American icon, there's something distinctly foreign and un-Hollywood about The Assassination of Jesse James. With its beautifully shot scenery and dreamy pace, it's more an elegiac mood piece than a Western, with hardly a gun battle in the whole 160 minutes.

This leisurely pace can sometimes be an asset. It allows the relationships between the characters to develop organically – relationships that are the heart of the film. There are plenty of finely judged pauses in the film's many conversations – the kind of beat-perfect timing that makes the difference between pregnant tension and limp forgetability.

But more often than not the pace is a millstone around the movie's neck. Too many scenes amble by without any apparent purpose, and too much time is spent on largely irrelevant detail. At times it challenges even Terrence Malick's unbearably tedious The New World in sheer self-indulgent waffling.

And yet there's also something haunting and unforgettable about The Assassination of Jesse James. It betrays a deep melancholy for a lost era, a feeling that the loss of men like James was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

Much of the film's power relies on the actors and, in large part, they deliver. Pitt is arresting as ever. He's always been talented at playing characters that are slightly unhinged and dangerous, though his role here is mostly recycled from his bravura performance in Babel – all hollow, haunted eyes and shaggy jowls.

The real star here, though, is Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Instead of playing the coward of the title as a one-dimensional baddy, Affleck manages to win our sympathy and a measure of our understanding. He takes a weak, fame obsessed weasel of a man and makes him the unacknowledged hero of the movie. If Affleck isn't at least nominated for an Oscar for this role, I'll be surprised.

But, even with Affleck's performance, few people are going to have the patience to sit through two and three quarter hours of grimaces and craggy landscapes – even if they are all beautifully shot. It's a pity though. There's something magical at the heart of this film, however infuriating the rest of it may be.

- Alistair Fairweather
Brad Pitt's new movie is everything its title promises: overlong, whimsical and more than a little pompous.

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