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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

I watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford thrice, each time with a different set of people. Most of them liked it well-enough, and my brother was probably the most impressed with it. However, every single person needed me to explain to them, at various points, who some of the supporting characters were and where they were supposed to be at. When my scriptwriter brother needs me to explain to him who is staying with whose relations and why, I think that there are definitely flaws in the storytelling, especially when you have a 160 minute movie where you have plenty of time to make plot points clear.

Now, I understand that some people find "plot" to be a dirty word. In the case of this film, I'll admit that writer/director Dominik was looking for atmosphere and tone, and I believe he produced his desired effect. I just don't understand why someone would make essentially an arthouse western, with what I consider stilted performances and dialogue, make it go on for far too long, and then try to pass it off as a psychologically-deep, naturalistic film. Well, maybe I do; Michael Cimino did it with Heaven's Gate, but I find Heaven's Gate to be the better of the two films.

Before I go on sounding like the curmudgeon I am, I will say that I was impressed with the visuals. Overall, I prefer Deakins' work in No Country For Old Men, but the shot of the train holdup at night, with Jesse James standing in front of it, and the exterior light casting enormous shadows from the train onto the forest is as impressive an individual visual scene as I've seen. The score is good, and parts of the narration are interesting, although the dryness makes me find it less special than it was probably intended to be. There are enough good things here for me to give it a qualified recommendation. I don't feel that I wasted eight hours watching it three times. I admire it more than I did the first time, but I don't like it any more. My rating:

As far as the actors and characters go, I'd say that over the course of three viewings, I've warmed to Affleck's performance, but his character still comes across as an underdeveloped cipher who I know little more about at the end of the film than I do when he first opened his mouth. On the other hand, I enjoyed Brad Pitt as a psycho, and I did feel the intelligence behind his character. He seemed all too real to me. I just would have thought that he'd squash Bob Ford like a bug. I even thought Sam Shepard's Frank James should have trusted his judgment and wasted Robert Ford in their introductory scene. Oh yeah, what the heck happened to Frank James? He's certainly a significant character, and then he just disappears. Oh well, I guess Jesse wasn't as smart as he seemed without his big brother. Even though Sam Rockwell also seems a bit affected as Charlie Ford, he is at least recognizable as a real character, but that's because he's actually given lines which someone might actually say in real life.

The film was open to being so ironic about how the characters were in real life compared to how they are depicted in folklore. To me, that would be the reason to make another Jesse James film, but I don't feel the irony here. I just feel a director unintentionally draining the life out of his material with method acting and what seems to be method directing. That is my main critique of this film. For all the artistry, skill, beauty and originality on display, it feels to me like looking at a butterfly collection. It's all very lifeless. Oops, the curmudgeon has resurfaced.

It's tough for me to say that Andrew Dominik is "method directing" since this is only his second film. It may have made more sense if I waited for his next film to see if I could determine a pattern. To tell you the truth, I've never said or written that phrase before in my life, but as I thought that some of the performances seemed to use the Method, I started trying to find a way to describe his way of telling this story.

Method Acting involves the actors using personal experiences in (sometimes) similar situations to draw out the emotions of the character they are playing. It also sometimes includes things which seem so personal that the actor/character occasionally seems to become disconnected from the other actors/characters around them. Brando was probably the best Method Actor I know of, but needless to say, he is infamous for some eccentric performances.

Watching The Ass of JJ, I was struck by how original the direction was. I can accept that this will appeal to many who see the film. I was trying to get inside Dominik's head to determine why he made all the choices he did, in both script and direction. I could see a touchstone in the works of Terrence Malick, but since I'm more used to Malick, I find his work, rightly or wrongly, to be be more true to himself. So then, I decided that Dominik made this film for a very deep-rooted personal reason which I'm not sure that I could fully grasp. Was he trying to place himself in the actual times of Jesse James and thus transport viewers to a more-relaxed, simpler world where things would "just seem slower"? It certainly seemed a possibility and a worthy endeavor.

Or was Dominik just trying to create a revisionist western along the lines of Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller? I wasn't sure if he was making an homage or a personal statement. However, as the film progressed, I started to find the presentation more eccentric rather than less so. This made me understand that he believed in the courage of his convictions, but perhaps his Method in depicting them was to go so far within himself that when they're projected onto the screen, he may have disconnected himself from at least this viewer. Utter BS, I admit, but it's a decent rationalization for inventing a phrase to support one's opinion. Now that I've used it, I can think of some more possible Method directors, both good and not-so-good. But I think that's going even more off-topic, or does that really mean eccentric, on my part? Have I become a Method reviewer? The horror...