As a movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not unlike its title: unusual and poetic but also way too long and somewhat contrived. Though it's not the best Western I've seen all year — that honor goes to 3:10 to Yuma — it is worth watching for the masterful beauty that breaks through the somewhat poorly managed pace.
In case you haven't heard, Jesse James stars Brad Pitt in the title role, and as the West is writing its own mythology, James is nearing the end of his illustrious outlaw career. Increasingly paranoid about the reward on his head, he takes up with a gang of petty thieves, including his future killer, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck).
That we know the ending all along doesn't make the story any less compelling, because what makes this movie better than most is its realistic-yet-surreal atmosphere. For the rest of my take,
Jesse James is visually stunning in a way that pays tribute to the West while looking unlike any Western I've ever seen. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the film a stark, isolated feel by flooding it with natural light, and the dreamy realism is enhanced by the dialog. Listening to it feels like eavesdropping, as the actors deliver each line with casually authentic cadence.
Pitt plays well as the brooding, private James, though at times he seems to forget that he's supposed to be telegraphing inner demons. The supporting cast is also stellar, particularly Sam Rockwell as Robert Ford's aw-shucks brother Charlie and Paul Schneider as gang member Dick Liddel. But the movie really belongs to Affleck, who strikes the perfect balance between painfully ordinary and downright creepy as the James-idolizing Ford. (Unfortunately, the women, including Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel, are such minor characters that they barely speak.)
But despite its authentic elements, The Assassination of Jesse James is too contrived for its own good. An anonymous narrator offers literary (and very long) voice-overs, but the rest of the movie, in its attempts to be arty, leaves a lot of details out. Why have a narrator tell us about the complexities of the story and the characters' emotions when the film could show us instead?
Frankly, the main problem with this movie is that it's just too long. Around the two-hour mark, even the beauty of each frame ceased to mesmerize me, and as a result, the movie doesn't pack as much emotional impact as it otherwise should. Like Jesse James, the movie suffers from the size of its own ego.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.