' ' Cinema Romantico: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

So what do you want first, loyal readers? Good news? Or bad news? What was that? Good news first, you say? Excellent choice. Good news it is.

Our introduction to the second title character should be a lesson plan in movie character introduction. The camera trails Robert Ford as he approaches Jesse and several others who are sitting in the woods, laughing. Ford lets loose with some very forced laughter, sits down with them and then they all get up and leave him alone. It's an image that says everything. Ford is the kid in the lunch room who wants to hang out with the cool kids and the cool kids ain't having it.

The first 30 minutes of this rather long (over two-and-a-half hours) film are spellbinding. Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepherd, which is just a hell of a casting choice) have recruited some new blood to execute the Blue Cut Train Robbery. Ford, whose older brother is among the new blood, wants to be included and advises Frank that he feels destined for "great things" and asks he if he can be a "sidekick" to the James gang. "A sidekick?" says Frank (great, great line reading by Shepherd), and then chases the youngster away.

But Jesse is more easily persuaded. Ford knows all about the myth of Jesse James, you see. The myth that Jesse discounts as "lies", though he doesn't seem to mind perpetuating it.

The train robbery itself is filmed gorgeously. The lanterns on the track. The train coming 'round the bend. Jesse standing on the lumber forcing the train to stop as it comes straight toward him. The music (in this scene and throughout) is beautiful, too.

Pitt does some fine work here as Jesse James. The myth is not on display. The "hothead" (as Frank puts it) and the depressive is. His smile alone says the proverbial thousand words. Does he really find something funny? Is he just egging you on? Is he about to pull his pistol and gun you down? Who knows? Affleck is just as good. His smile, and the way he speaks, seem to suggest he isn't quite all there. Notice the way Jesse's wife Zee (Mary Louise Parker, who seems, oh, a tad under-used) looks at Ford whenever he turns up. "This jackass?" she seems to be thinking.

For such a lengthy film, though, character motivation seems unclear. I'm not talking about what we may already know from history. I'm talking about what the film is saying to us, and that's all that matters. Why is Jesse so insistent on keeping Ford around? Honestly, it didn't seem to make that clear. And considering the entire second act is devoted to characterization - and too much characterization to characters not included in the film's colossal title, by the way - why does it feel like we're still somehow missing so much? The cinematography no doubt will make quite an impression on most people, and it is rather beautiful, but cinematography does not a character make.

The film rebounds for the conclusion, particularly the dreamy, poetic re-enactment of the incident which provided the film its title but I almost had to smack myself in the face to wake myself back up for it.

I wrote in my review of "3:10 to Yuma" that at least it was trying for greatness, even if it failed. In regards to said review my fellow critic Rory (the Movie Idiot) indicated to me that he disagreed. He stated that he didn't think directors who have made great movies necessarily set about specifically to do so. They made a movie as best they could. Even as we talked, I suspected his point trumped mine. And upon seeing "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" I'm certain it did. Rory, I concede. (Though, I will say I still respect a filmmaker more if he's trying to be great as opposed to trying to make a cheap buck.)

The first act is spectacular, the third act is pretty good, but the second act falls short, I think, because it was wanted so dearly to elevate the whole enterprise to greatness. Or as Robbie Graham of the short-lived but brilliant sitcom "It's Like, You Know" once said in relation to sex: "It's hard to be good when you're trying so hard to be good."

1 comment:

Molly said...

Good for people to know.