Friday, October 5, 2007

Movies: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Oh, how I wanted this to be the best movie of the year.
Oh, how I've sighed each time the great Brad Pitt agreed to another bad movie.
Oh, the potential, wasted.

So. I'm being melodramatic, and in a cloying, non-provocative way, but that's exactly what The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does. The actors are brilliant, each and every one of them (although the Jesse James role gives Pitt surprisingly little room in which to shine; he has, we must admit, gotten older), but they are trapped behind a Vaseline-slicked lens* controlled by art direction that doesn't admit grit.

First things first. Casey Affleck, as we may have suspected, is the star here, rather than Old Man Pitt. He takes upon himself the creepy overgrown boy technique usually the province of Tobey McGuire (cf. Cider House Rules). His voice cracks at opportune moments, he stares with uncanny adulation at his hero, and he switches from adolescent bravado to huff-and-puff tantrum thrower at the crack of every joke made at his expense (there are many). His part is well-written and for that he is luckier than People Magazine's ex-Sexiest-Man-Alive. Pitt, here, takes on the role that would traditionally be saved for Robert Redford (Spy Game Redford is to Spy Game Pitt what Assassination Pitt is to Assassination Affleck): the old man, the wise one, he who has seen it all and is, frankly, tired. He wears it well—his face is starting to wrinkle expressively like an expensive leather handbag, as does Redfords, as does Pierce Brosnan's. For wintry scenes (a transition to my cursing the film's art direction), he wears big layers of heavy black skins and firs, vamping it up rockstar-shaman style as would have only Jim Morrison; being Old Man Pitt himself, a rockstar-shaman in his own right, he carries the burden well, but it jars the texture of the scenery.

And onto the scenery. There is a lot of it. The film is too long, and I would recommend that 20-30 minutes be trimmed in shots of trees and woods and hills, in order to isolate more closely the interior shots, within which we see the characters' interiors operating. The yellow lighting and sepia tones I appreciate, but the "blur" effect (an ever-shifting 20-40% of the perimeter of the screen "melting" away for aesthetic affect) cloys, and the voiceover (Mon Dieu! The voiceover!) reeks more heavily than great-grandmamma's violet toilet water.

Finally, a note on cowardice. Due to certain plot machinations that I found surprisingly difficult to follow, Robert Ford was given no choice but to assassinate Jesse James. And, given James' mental state, I would prefer to call it assisted suicide than assassination. And, as I support assisted suicide, and think that no one has balls like Dr. Kevorkian, by my book, Robert Ford was no coward. No coward would have even spoken to the outlaw hero, much less wormed his way into his gang, his home, his head. And no coward would have pulled the trigger.

So, forgive my melodrama, because in retrospect I like the movie better than I did while I was watching it. The good parts stick, and the bad parts fall away. Although I feel like a good re-edit (I'm certain the blur was added post-production) could make take it from three to five stars.

*Pre-photoshop, and perhaps even pre-filter, photographers would sometimes rub a ring petroleum jelly around their lense's perimeter in order to produce a fade-to-blur effect on the edges, approximating "art"—think Julia Margaret Cameron.

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