January 09, 2012

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

An elegiac Western, brooding with grim death, about the life and death of Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt. Director Andrew Dominik and cinematographer Richard Deakins capture the vastness of the Midwestern terrain which serves as the stage for the countless train robberies and stand-offs and meandering conversations in breezy meadows. It's vacuous like a Terrence Malick film, and while its subject has a certain dramatic pull, watching it lumber along for nearly three hours reminded me why Westerns are so utterly unappealing, with a few exceptions. They're either gratuitously unrealistic to the point of being macho right-wing fantasies or they're so grimly realistic that you can't get an inkling of enjoyment out of them (much like Meek's Cutoff). It's quiet and ponderous like There Will Be Blood, which is a better movie. It had a poetic energy to it while Jesse James feels torpid and unimaginative.

Brad Pitt tries to layer a philosophical undercurrent into his performance as Jesse James, and Casey Affleck, as the calculating Robert Ford in the title, turns squeaky-voiced weaselly-ness into an art form--an undignified, desperately unappealing one. Pitt registers. He's an actor who hasn't really gotten his due. But the movie is unsustained--parts are better than the whole--and so his performance and his staying power are rendered somewhat less effective. The supporting cast is populated with good actors who are bogged down by a boring script and the shackles of self-important filmmaking: Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, and Zooey Deschanel.

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