[Review] The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford opens with a beautiful and poetic monologue, describing the American outlaw Jesse James and all the eccentricities of his character. From the opening shot, the movie is beautiful. The camera loves the scenery, and translates it to the screen with such incredible atmosphere and life. From beginning to end, this is a gorgeous movie.
It tells the story of the last year or so of Jesse James’s(Brad Pitt) life, starting with a train robbery in Blue Cut, Missouri. There, a young man named Robert Ford(Casey Affleck), a brother to one of the men in the James Gang, approaches first Frank then Jesse James about joining them. Jesse allows Robert to join in, and from there the film follows the development of their tenuous friendship, and the paranoid descent of James as he begins to believe all his former allies are out to turn him in. The film also covers the period after James’s assassination. (spoilers? It’s in the title, for Heaven’s sake)
The movie doesn’t have much in the way of plot, as it seeks to concentrate on characters and atmosphere. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much in the way of characters, either, though it’s full to bursting with atmosphere. While all the actors are well into their roles, there isn’t much to do with them. The film wants to talk about these mostly silent men, who rarely tell the truth or speak of their feelings, but it does an incredibly poor job of giving the audience a peek inside. There is an art to shooting closed off characters. The filmmaker cannot have the character betray their own nature by just spilling their emotional guts everywhere, but at the same time, the audience has to know what’s happening in these people’s heads. A good example of this kind of storytelling is another western, actually: Brokeback Mountain. Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are both men of few words, especially del Mar, but the audience still gets an intense look into who these people are.
Assassination tries to show the hero worship Ford has towards James, but it is a pale, shallow portrayal, mostly communicated by prop cues rather than genuine character moments. It tries to show James’s paranoia, but we just see the outside of it — his erratic behavior, mostly unexplained, as opposed to giving us any glimpses into the character’s head. The film often mistakes empty scenes for character moments, having two people talking about some chore around the house. But this doesn’t actually develop characters. The conversation needs to give than a mere look at their daily lives. It needs to give us some understanding of them as people.
The film is further hindered by its unending devotion to meaningless, empty shots. Remember when I said this movie was gorgeous and atmospheric? This is what brings both of those things. The problem is, a film should be a balance of elements. Atmosphere is good, but a slavish devotion to it at the sacrifice of plot or character development makes for a poorer film, and two thirds of the way through this one, I found even the beautiful shots to be passing me by unmarked, because I was simply tired of watching them.
There are so many shots of Brad Pitt staring blankly at the camera in this movie that I was tempted to make a drinking game. Take a shot whenever Brad Pitt looks at you with dead eyes. Speaking of, one of the opening lines of the film points out the fact that Jesse James blinked frequently due to a disorder of the eye. Then, after specifically pointing that out, the film goes on to show Pitt staring into the distance for minutes at a time. Did no one notice this? Couldn’t an editor have spoken up and pointed out that if they just removed that line, the movie would make more sense?
The dialogue is a perfect example of how phatic dialogue is inferior to emphatic dialogue in entertainment. Yes, phatic dialogue is truer to life. Yes, the way that people talk normally is short, boring and plain. But even historical films often sacrifice some realism in order to give the audience that wonderful, stirring dialogue that brings us into the movie. Phatic is not interesting to listen to. If it were, we would find those mundane conversations we have with strangers to be fascinating. Any interesting dialogue has been stripped from this movie, leaving conversations at the ‘how are you feeling?’ ‘I am feeling fine’ level.
Unfortunately, despite beautiful cinematography and amazing(potential) acting talent, this film is a long, boring exercise in patience. If you manage to suffer through it’s eighteen endings, my congratulations to you.
Assassination barely has one female speaking part. The experiences of women aren’t valued in this film. Obviously, it’s a film about Jesse James and Robert Ford, both men, and the rest of the gang, which was all men. However, there are women in the film, and given the endless shots of nothing, you’d think the filmmaker would have latched on to some other characters.
My other problem is this: Yes, you can make movies about Jesse James and say ‘well, it’s about an all male crime gang, of course it’s going to be all about men’. But why not make a movie about something else? Lord knows Jesse James has more than enough movies about him. Instead of making the umpteenth Jesse James film, why not do something more rare? Why not make a movie about women in the west? Maybe it’s a straight up historical drama, with all the details right and showing what life was really like for women. Or maybe it’s a crazy, over the top, classic western, straight out of the 50s, but with some badass chick cowboy rolling into town and taking down some evil chick sheriff. There are good stories out there. Stories that have legitimately not been covered, but instead, people want to make THEIR Jesse James film.
I suppose I would have had more pity for them if the film itself had been any good. As it is, I feel like the time and money could have been better put to something different.
August 10, 2010
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Tags: 2000s, 2007, Bechdel Test: Failed, Feminism 1 Star, Movie 1.5 Stars, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford В· Posted in: Movie, Review