Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

An Impressive Modern Western

- Ever since Robert Ford was a young boy, the infamous outlaw Jesse James has been his hero. As a young man, Robert Ford is almost having an out-of-body experience as a member of the James Gang. Now Ford is not only able to meet his idol face to face but actually working side-by-side with him in similar illegal escapades that most only read about. But Bob Ford's feelings of ambition and fame start to replace his feelings of worship for Jesse James - and I do not have to tell you how things end up, the title already told you.

I will admit that I had some preconceived biases coming into this film right away: (1) I am a bit cautious when approaching films in which I already know how they end, they often do not leave much of an impression; and (2) I was not particularly keen on watching Casey Affleck in anything; he is after all.... an Affleck - and is not to be trusted with giving a good performance. However, everything turned out well in the end, as Casey Affleck did a real good job and I liked the film overall despite a few qualms.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford has a fantastic cast and is wonderfully photographed; however, the film's story, while not bad and equipped with a large helping of gripping scenes, was not engrossing overall and I ended up impressed more with the film's characters and look rather than what moves the film along. It is nice to have those things go hand-in-hand, but in the case of The Assassination Of Jesse James my feelings are quite separated.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about the film was the film's cast. Brad Pitt stars as Jesse James and gives what I believe to be his best performance to date. Jesse James is not exactly a character that has never seen on screen before, but Pitt gives the most powerful and most realistic performance of Mr. James yet - and this is coming from a big fan of Robert Duvall's portrayal of Jesse James in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972). Pitt's Jesse James is very menacing and full of dimension - the man is quite simply plagued with insanity and you do not know what he will do next.

As I alluded to earlier, Casey Affleck also does job in his role as Bob Ford. A little slow in presentation but is quick on the draw, Bob Ford is bursting with personal ambition and seething with emotion. Affleck really brings these qualities out well, giving an overall impressive performance that silences all questions as to whether he is up for such a character in such a film.

As good as the two main performances in the film are (referring to Pitt and Affleck), I honestly think Sam Rockwell gives the best performance of the film as Charlie Ford, Bob's older brother. No less than two different things are battling each other in Charlie's brain throughout the film. Charlie has to deal with loyalty to Jesse, loyalty to his brother, fear for his brother and then fear for his own life. Rockwell does an amazing job bringing these internal qualities out for all to see on screen very subtly and he is particularly interesting to watch during the final act.

The other members of the film's cast also give great performances: Mary-Louise Parker as the very quiet Mrs. Zee James; Sam Shepard as Jesse's weathered brother Frank James; and Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, and Garret Dillahunt are also all excellent as mistrustful members of the James Gang. I dare you to find a bad performance in the entire film.

As far as the look of the film goes.... Well, it is quite brilliant. Deakins does it again! Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins - the master of light and color - performs a stellar job behind the camera photographing The Assassination Of Jesse James with his signature film texturing and slick camera movements. On top of "the master's" cinematography work, the art direction and costume design bring the late 1800s to your living room. Forget about pretending that Brad Pitt is walking around a Canadian stand-in for the western United States: The Assassination Of Jesse James takes you to the era, case closed.

With all the aspects I have to praise this film about, the story for The Assassination Of Jesse James is was ends up letting me down since, outside of a generous handful of gripping scenes, I did not find it particularly interesting. Perhaps it was knowing how the film was going to end before I even popped the DVD in, but a lot of the events leading up to the eventual assassination of Jesse James by Robert Ford seemed a bit monotonous.

The story is actually quite captivating at the beginning of the film and then it becomes captivating again after Jesse James is assassinated by Robert Ford where we see Jesse James' legacy begin, Bob Ford getting what he wanted and still being unhappy, and Charlie Ford's reaction to it all. However, that leaves over two hours of a generally uninteresting story to contend with, squished between the two half-an-hour bookends of interesting story - and it is just not a very appetizing Oreo. The film does include a good number of captivating scenes, but they involve interactions between characters, which forms my general stance on the film that the characters and style are about the only interesting things to watch in the whole film, rather than the story and/or themes.

Still, the story hardly makes the film unbearable to watch; and, while the story fails to move the film along, the interesting characters pick up the mess. In the end, the memorable performances from the fantastic Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck-lead cast and Roger Deakins' fine cinematography work make The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford more than watchable and recommendable – they make it a great modern western.

CBC Rating: 8/10

No comments: