If you make a film and you inject it with as much poetry as possible, use a narrator, long takes, and shoot fields of tall grass, then you are going to be compared to Terrance Malick. Is that a problem? For some people it may be, as the implication is that the film will be both slow and long. For this viewer it can work out well, as it did in the case of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, written and directed by Andrew Dominik.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, takes place during the last years of Jesse James’ life, when he met Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Jesse is a paranoid, confused, and suicidal figure at this point and Robert Ford is a sycophant of the highest order, having obsessed over Jesse James (Brad Pitt) his entire life. The film tracks the men’s relationship with one another and with other members of the gang and leads to the aftermath of the infamous man’s death.
What I liked: The poetry of the image was the surface, the initial layer of the film with it’s long lenses and shallow focus combined with vast landscapes and rugged interiors. Everything in the film is sparse, stripped-down, in an effort not to distract from the story. I loved how the film was shot. Roger Deakins is the man and he flexes his cinematographer’s muscles in this film. Dominik has the sense to work to Deakin‘s strengths in the film, shooting some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen in awhile. I should have seen this in the theater.
The next layer, the most important one, is the subtlety of the performances. Affleck, Pitt, Sam Rockwell, and Paul Schneider all deserve special mention and Affleck probably should have gotten an Oscar for this performance. While the character is detestable I couldn’t help but care for him. He is a tragic figure, mirroring Jesse James careening towards his demise. I thought this was the real powerhouse performance by Affleck of the year, not Gone Baby Gone. Pitt should also be noted for playing the icon himself and playing him as a man.
The shoot-out that occurs towards the end of the film was a favorite scene of mine. Played realistically with poor shooting and some real character moments, the scene stood out as a powerful example of how modern westerns can remain fresh by depicting the genre conventions as unromantic as possible.
What I didn’t like: The film dragged a bit in the middle, focusing too much on characters that, while interesting, detracted from the thrust of the narrative. I wanted to get back to Robert Ford and Jesse James.