Directed by Andrew Dominik, who previously made the nasty little movie CHOPPER with that incredible performance from Eric Bana, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD is a lyrical, brooding, atmospheric, almost anti-Western that gave me the goose bumps numerous times throughout the 2 hour and a half hour run time. Dominik has skyrocketed to the top of young directors with this film. I might have expected a film of such power and force from an established director but I just had no idea that this guy was capable of such a movie. He must've gotten tons and tons of big Hollywood offers after CHOPPER was unleashed but I’m glad he waited. This film is a masterwork, the closest thing to a Terrence Malick movie that Terrence Malick never directed. I was reminded many times of Malick's most recent masterpiece THE NEW WORLD while watching JESSE JAMES; there are stretches with no dialogue, heavy emphasis on nature, and a poetic and meditative tone. I hesitate to call JESSE JAMES a "Western"....I mean, it's certainly not a "Western" like the recent OPEN RANGE, THE MISSING, or UNFORGIVEN. It’s not concerned with minutiae or artifice, though the production design is certainly incredible; it’s stark, crisp, and clean, and while languidly paced, never boring or restless.
It's essentially a psychological study of a murder, and a murderer, and it doesn’t play to the many cliché Western conventions that we’ve seen over and over again. I will keep the story description brief: Casey Affleck plays Robert Ford, and is absolutely amazing in the role. I have never thought anything of him as an actor but that all changed last night. He has a very, very tough character to portray, playing a deeply unsympathetic guy who the audience knows will end up killing Jesse James at some point in the narrative. Affleck brings a strung-out, beaten-down quality to the character of Ford, and as the movie progresses, you watch as he becomes more confident of himself, and how he starts to believe his own madness.
Brad Pitt plays Jesse James with cocky swagger and is just awesome; it’s one of the best performances of his underrated career. He owns the role, it’s like it was tailor made for him. Just watch the way the guy smokes his cigars and moves his head and eyes….methodical and unnerving. Jesse James, in real life, was a legend, a pseudo-celebrity before the era of tabloid magazines and paparazzi. So having a movie star like Brad Pitt play him is a genius stroke of casting in and of itself. What Pitt does, brilliantly, is make you care about this dark, scummy gunslinger, which is tough considering that James was an aloof sociopath. Like Ford, Jesse isn't a very likeable guy (come to think of it, nobody in the movie is particularly likeable) but you end up warming to him a little bit (I did at least) even though he's basically asking to get killed throughout the entire picture.
The supporting cast is aces across the board, with Sam Rockwell registering best as Ford's brother. This guy is so damn good it's a crime he doesn't get enough attention. His work in Ridley Scott’s vastly underrated MATCHSTICK MEN is still his best work but he’s terrific in this film as well. Sam Shepard, Mary Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, and slew of excellent character actors round out the solid cast. But the movie belongs to Casey Affleck. He's just riveting all throughout.
The film is more about style and atmosphere than anything else. It's a tone poem of sorts about a gritty, dark period in American history. It feels extremely intimate yet very epic at times, due in large part to the stunning cinematography by Roger Deakins (FARGO, JARHEAD, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?) Using what appeared to be natural light almost exclusively and an impressionistic shooting style composed of beautiful vistas, extreme close-ups, silhouettes, moonlight, train-light, and a gauzy effect similar to Bob Richardson’s brilliant cinematography in SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, Deakins work here is simply astonishing. Every shot is perfect. No joke. I am a big fan of movies that lean on the visual aspects of storytelling to present information; with this being a Ridley and Tony Scott production, no expense has been spared to make JESSE JAMES look totally authentic (without being garish or over-blown) Of late, some of my favorite films have been THE NEW WORLD, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE GOOD SHEPHERD, MUNICH, THE DEPARTED, MIAMI VICE, APOCALYPTO, CITY OF GOD, MAN ON FIRE, and many others. I am attracted to the different ways that filmmakers can present their ideas through visuals, rather than words. And Dominik and Deakins have earned their place in the company of some of the most striking visual storytellers.
I fell in love with this film from the start. From the god-like voiceover narration that runs over the entire movie to the attention paid to each and every shot, there are moments of sublime beauty at almost every turn in this film. It's essentially an art film set in the old West. And when the story gets violent, it gets extremely intense. In fact, one of the things that I loved about this film so much was the constant feeling of dread and uncertainty that runs through each scene. Right from the start, you get the feeling that any character could meet their maker at any point. And that's one of the things about the old West that made that time period so dangerous; people got killed in a heartbeat, over simple stuff. And when people get shot in this film, it's brutal and unflinching. Not sensationalized or over the top, but rather grim and raw. Like what you'd see on DEADWOOD. No big shoot-outs down at the corral or horse-chase sequences. When pistols are fired in this movie, the audience feels every bullet.
What makes JESSE JAMES better than most movies are the moral shades of gray that the characters exhibit. JESSE JAMES is basically about how one man comes to the decision to kill his idol, and in the crudest comparison, I guess maybe the movie is sort of like a stalker-thriller. Ford idolizes Jesse, wants to ride with him, wants to rob with him, and wants to be him. But the relationship that develops between the two men is awkward and volatile, giving off an un-easy feeling all throughout the movie.
I know this review is all over the place but there are so many things I loved about this movie. The time Dominik took to tell his story, the gripping performances, the literate dialogue, the incredible scenery, and the breathtaking ending that is so perfect it's almost a joke. In closing, JESSE JAMES is an amazing effort from a new, dynamic voice in film--Andrew Dominik. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES is the kind of movie that makes me happy to be a film buff, and the sort of film that makes me love going to the cinema. I can't wait to re-watch it over and over again.
**** out of ****