Director: Andrew Dominik (Chopper)
Screenplay: Andrew Dominik
Novel: Ron Hansen
Producers: Jules Daly, Dede Gardner, Brad Pitt, Ridley Scott, David Valdes
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepherd, Mary-Louise Parker
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 160 min
It takes one helluva movie for those of us in the third row to give it five stars. It has to have pretty much everything cinema has to offer all bundled into one and do it well. Most importantly it has to be engaging and true. No other film this year has captured my attention and had me looking on in wonder as much so as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
With no opening title credits, we’re thrust right into the heart of the story and all of our main characters. The James gang is about to break up. They’re planning on pulling off one more train robbery before hanging up the spurs and guns for a simpler life. Young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) has looked up to his hero Jesse (Brad Pitt) since he was a boy and this last robbery he plans to show what he’s made of and earn the trust and friendship of the notorious outlaw. Earn it he does and he tags along with Jesse and various gang members as they set off in search of a better life. No sooner has the gang split, than the law starts finding some of the members and bringing them to justice. Jesse, paranoid as a deer at wolf creek, stalks his ex-members that he feels he can’t trust and does away with them one by one. This leads to more paranoia, double-crossing and general “familial” chaos that weaves a heartbreaking and tension filled story of the dying glory of the fabled old west (or in this case, mid-west). As Jesse’s delusions and paranoia grow deeper. Ford’s resentment of the hero begins to grow, until he too begins to fear for his life which leads Ford to his destiny.
I can’t fathom this film not seeing some Oscar nominations this year. At the forefront of these nominations will be the acting nods. Casey Affleck plays the part unbelievably well. Coupled with his terrific performance in Gone Baby Gone, it is inconceiveable we won’t see a whole slew of awards on Affleck’s shelf by year end. His shifty eyes, vocal intonations and general sense of realism and tension building is truly something to behold. His ability to appear meek, scared and unconfident is brilliant. This is a young man who obviously went to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil, for his acting skills are simply on another level compared to other performances throughout the year.
As wonderful as Affleck is, nothing can be taken away from the entire supporting cast. Sam Shepard and Jeremy Renner add nice smaller roles while Sam Rockwell tightens everything up with his role as Ford’d older brother. But the highlight, beyond the surprise of Mr. Affleck, is easily Brad Pitt. Pitt has buried himself in this role and jumped in with both guns blazing as this is easily the performance of his career.
Other than Bug, I can’t recall seeing so many people walk out of a theater as they did during my screening of Jesse James. This is usually the sign of an either really great movie or a really bad movie. Here, it’s so obviously the former. The problem for many people is the expectation that this is an action packed, shoot-em up western. While there is a bit of gun play sprinkled throughout the picture, most of the film is a deliberately paced (that means slow) drama that builds tension with facial expressions and knowing grins. Two dinner table scenes come to mind in which you can almost cut the tension with a knife. No fights or yelling; just a quiet, edge of your seat intensity, knowing that fear and paranoia could spring up at any second and rear its ugly head.
Besides the acting and story, what really brought this film to life for me was the absolutely stunning cinematography. Not since Malick’s The New World have I seen anything so breathtakingly gorgeous on screen. We get full panoramic shots of mountains and fields and the Missouri countryside; colors washed out when needed and highlighted when called for; also the high contrast, almost grainy film stock that was used makes everything seem to want to burst from the screen. The perfect juxtaposition of blacks and whites and greens and browns are incredibly eye catching; all encompassed with the perfect use of lighting that highlights what needs to be shown and darkens the lesser to create an ominous, but captivating, pallette of cinema brilliance. The first glimpse of the train coming down the tracks in the black of night was a particular highlight and I was mesmerized from then on out.
A little bit of narration is used in key sequences. While this can get tedious and needless in many films and is often just there to provide a bridge for a director who can’t seem to find any other way to segue between scenes, it’s used rather well in Jesse James. What makes it interesting is the visual cue given whenever there is narration. A blurry, slightly warped camera lens is used (actually, it’s probably a post production effect) to give us the feel of looking at something almost as though we’re seeing it through a window; as an outsider. It was an interesting tactic that made the narration seem much more needful.
Along with a great visual style comes a nice, carefully designed score to accompany key scenes. Often times a movie includes its music to enhance the emotional impact of a storyline. Here, Dominik lets the story and the acting and visual cues do almost all the emotional talking. The score is used very sparingly and not so much to add emotion, but create a mood. Nick Cave, who also scored and wrote the screenplay for last year’s also terrific The Proposition lends his musical talent here as well and has helped add that little extra something to a film that is already damn near perfect.
If forced to find one small flaw with the film it would be the drawn out epilogue. Though not completely unnecessary, it felt as though we’re being given a completely new story that could span another two hours, but instead it’s shoved down our throats in about 15 minutes. The film would’ve been much better served to just cut this out and leave us with a much snappier and tighter closing. Still, it’s a minor flaw, as even in this 15 minute closing sequence there are some truly terrific directing tactics and even more great details about the story that while bog down the film as a whole, do help to enhance the storyline a bit and provide us with some closure and further character depth.
The brilliance in this film lies with the detail for accuracy in everything. Each set and prop piece, each actor’s precision in their task to suspend our disbelief and each gorgeous vista shot are never taken lightly. Jesse James is not a mainstream crowd pleaser. This is a slow, deliberately paced piece of fantastic film making. It is here to give us a sense of realism to the time and place, while enhancing the beauty for our enjoyment. Look for multiple Oscar nominations in several categories here and also look for some wins. Though the title is a little long, this picture could have gone on for another 2 hours and I would’ve been perfectly content.