The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford Review
By Joe Lozito
To paraphrase a character from Brad Pitt's past: The first rule of villainy is to be careful of who you trust. Few people exemplify that better than Jesse James who was famously shot in the back by a member of his own gang, Robert Ford. As dramatized in the unforgivably slow and over-titled "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford", Ford was a dangerously doting lackey. There is a tradition of obsequious, slightly effete henchmen in films dating back to Martin Landau in "North by Northwest" and continued most recently courtesy of Ben Foster in "3:10 to Yuma"
. As played by Casey Affleck in the performance of his career, Ford is less Mr. Smithers from "The Simpsons" and more Jennifer Jason Leigh from "Single White Female". He is also one of the few things to recommend about director Andrew Dominik's meandering, over-long film.
Adapted by Mr. Dominik ("Chopper") from the novel by Ron Hansen, "Assassination" is told via a consistently under-illuminating narration ("He turned over playing cards", we hear as we watch it happen) which gives the film the feeling of a staged reading. It follows, ironically, the least interesting part of Jesse James' life. Approaching "middle age" (at 34), the legendary outlaw has already robbed his last train. He takes his family, including devoted wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker, entirely wasted), from one farmhouse to the next, never settling down long enough to be discovered. We don't see much of the fabled James Brothers (Sam Shepard cameos as Frank), but what remains of his gang is only a source of paranoia and concern.
As played by Brad Pitt, James is a collection of unpredictable ticks which amount to little enlightenment. To call the actor charismatic would be an understatement, but he's able to do little to explain what made this odd, intense man such a legend. This is mostly due to the script which squanders scene after scene on self-conscious pauses and arbitrary outbursts. At one point Jesse randomly produces two snakes during a conversation with Ford, and the film gets a much needed jolt of energy. Unfortunately, he just as quickly kills them for supper. The most interesting part of the film revolves around a subplot involving Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), a womanizing member of the James Gang in hiding for adultery (among other things). Mr. Schneider's character is every bit as charming as Jesse probably had been in his younger days.
The film is shot beautifully by veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Jarhead"
). It has the quality of an old photograph but with uncharacteristic depth of field. Unfortunately, Mr. Dominik's determination to fade to black at the end of each sequence gives the film a slow, stuttering pace. The somnambulant tone is only compounded by the film's score (by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis) which evokes (purposefully, I would imagine) an old music box. There's an interesting story to be told about the last days of Jesse James. This film could have been it if it weren't trying to be so - to borrow a phrase of the time - high-falutin'.