September 2, 2007 / 11:55 PM / 11 years ago

"Assassination of Jesse James" a celluloid crime

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - At the heart of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” lies an obsessive, destructive relationship between two disparate yet oddly similar men. One eventually will kill the other.

U.S. actor Brad Pitt arrives for a news conference in Venice, September 2, 2007. Pitt stars in Andrew Dominik's film "The assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford", which is being shown at the Venice Film Festival. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi

Yet this fascinating relationship gets smothered in pointlessly long takes, repetitive scenes, grim Western landscapes and mumbled, heavily accented dialogue. The self-indulgence begins with director Andrew Dominik and infects much of the cast, who deliver meandering, unstable performances. Instead of contemplating the moral dimensions of novelist Ron Hansen’s portrait of outlaw paranoia and obsession, a viewer can only think of waste — the waste of good material and themes, a talented cast and, most crucially, the viewer’s own time.

Coming from the production companies of the film’s star, Brad Pitt, and Ridley and Tony Scott and based on Hansen’s well-received novel, the film’s pedigree probably means a solid opening week. However, word-of-mouth might kill the movie faster than Robert Ford killed Jesse James.

For the record, Robert (Casey Affleck) doesn’t shoot Pitt’s Jesse until 132 minutes into the 160-minute running time. Strangely, what happens afterward is at least as interesting as what leads up to the murder. So the film also suffers from an imbalance: Too much time is lavished on the inevitable and not enough on its aftermath.

In 1881, Jesse James, 34, is at the height of his infamy as an outlaw. Bob Ford, 19, is the restless, country rube and younger brother of a James gang member. He has read every nickel novel written about the gangsters and is drawn to the scary, charismatic Jesse, who heads the gang along with his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard, who’s barely in the film despite being third-billed).

Most gang members are wary if not frightened of the moody Jesse and his explosive, often murderous temper, but Robert is irresistibly drawn to him. It’s never clear to either man whether Robert wants to be like Jesse, destroy Jesse or somehow become him. The film is nothing if not a meditation on a fan’s obsession with a celebrity, a phenomenon now called stalking.

But Dominik, who also wrote the script, drags out this poisonous courtship with protracted scenes either virtually empty of significance or redundant. Clouds roll swiftly over western skies. The weeds flap in the breeze. Men grunt, spit and stare at one another in mockery or fear.

Then there are those accents. Whether they accurately reflect the country rube-cracker speech of 19th century Missouri, they frequently land on 21st century ears as unintelligible sounds. Couldn’t this have been cleaned up on the ADR stage?

The film grimly — but no doubt accurately — portrays one of the most famous outlaw gangs in history as a collection of hicks, petty thieves and psychopathic murderers. Pitt’s Jesse is a born killer who sometimes covers up his brutality with nasty humor and bursts of generosity. He’s naturally paranoid and shoots anyone he suspects whether he has reason to or not. If Robert didn’t kill Jesse, Jesse surely would have killed him and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell).

Affleck’s Robert is the most interesting character here. Affleck does something to his voice that makes him whiny: He talks in a whimper. And his body moves in odd, halting angles. He is handsome but doesn’t seem to know it. He alternately exudes great enthusiasm or sulks. He is a man forever auditioning for a role but uncertain exactly what it is. Then he finds his role — and learns to hate himself and the act that made him famous.

Charlie is a lackey but after the killing turns morose, hateful and suicidal as the two tour the country in a stage show where they re-enact the killing. Charley plays Jesse. Meanwhile, two gang members, played by Paul Schneider and Jeremy Renner, carry on a feud that proves lethal for both. The women in the lives of these men, Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife and Zooey Deschanel as a sympathetic friend acquired during his “stage career,” are barely glimpsed.

Missouri circa 1880 in this Canadian-shot production is a raw, untamed land of rough beauty and mean accommodations. One thing of note is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music. They have produced a languid, often mournful score that is almost a dirge. Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter, also appears in a saloon scene to sing a well-known song from that era about Jesse and Robert.


Jesse James: Brad Pitt

Robert Ford: Casey Affleck

Frank James: Sam Shepard

Zeralda James: Mary-Louise Parker

Dick Liddil: Paul Schneider

Wood Hite: Jeremy Renner

Dorothy Evans: Zooey Deschanel

Charley Ford: Sam Rockwell

Henry Craig: Michael Parks

Sheriff Timberlake: Ted Levine

Gov. Crittenden: James Carville

Screenwriter-director: Andrew Dominik; Based on the novel by: Ron Hansen; Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Ridley Scott, Jules Daly, David Valdes; Executive producers: Brad Grey, Tony Scott, Lisa Ellzey, Benjamin Waisbren; Director of photography: Roger Deakins; Production designer: Patricia Norris; Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis; Costume designer: Patricia Norris; Editors: Dylan Tichenor, Curtiss Clayton.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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