One Wish: That The Duration Of This Movie Equaled The Time Taken To Read Its Title Movie Review: "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford"

By Omar P.L. Moore/September 22, 2007

Studying a legend to vanquish him: Casey Affleck (left) is excellent as Robert Ford, but can't save the trenchant exercise that is "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford", which also stars Brad Pitt, as Jesse James (above).  The film is directed by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik.  (Photo: Kimberley French/Warner Brothers)

Good news and bad news.  First, the good news: Andrew Dominik's film features Casey Affleck in his finest hour, in a riveting and nuanced performance as the film title's coward, brilliant, sterling -- one of the best internal displays of acting this year, as a matter of fact.  The bad news: it is everyone else's weakest hour (save Brad Pitt).  Shot in 2005, this much-troubled, much-delayed film, the second such troubled film that Warner Brothers has released in just over a month -- the other was "The Invasion", which faded fast at the box-office in North America -- is long, droll and runs at a monotone two-hour-and-40-minute ramble.  And that's just too bad, because there are some stupendous visions to enjoy courtesy of Roger Deakins, but one of the most irritating aspects of the film are its painfully gloomy narration which is unnecessary and feels force-fed.  It is one thing to convey a story with intensity and passion, but quite another when a filmmaker is investing energy and effort in throwing the story at you in an annoying way with such a trenchant and uninspiring narrative technique.  It should be noted that narration is not a general problem in a film per se, but when delivered in a condescending, bedtime-story-like fashion for inordinate periods of time, it feels sleepy, preachy, dreary, and without end (which defines the experience of watching this film.)

The other huge let-down in the film is its editing, and because the editing is so wildly uneven -- sequences that last a few seconds are smashed against scenes that last at least five or ten minutes (and some of those could have used further editing) -- it is not easy to sit comfortably and watch.  The story was reportedly edited not only by its original editors (Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor), but also by Mr. Dominik himself, and then by Mr. Pitt.  The film was supposed to be released more than a year ago, but editing and other creative issues and differences amongst those in front of and behind the scenes hijacked the initial release date.  "The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" (which opened yesterday in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Austin, Texas) is like a horror show that refuses to draw much blood -- it tortures you without making you scream -- but you know you are slowly dying inside, and alas, there's no CPR in the vicinity to alleviate the self-imposed suffocation, which is the feeling you feel after just about the one-hour mark.

It should be said that Mr. Pitt doesn't do badly as the legendary American outlaw Jesse James, train robber extraordinaire, a man celebrated by his legend as much as by the fear in others who admired him.  Because of who he is, Jesse didn't trust many, and later on, in a rare bright moment in "Assassination", his paranoia engulfs him.  From the get-go he certainly doesn't trust Robert Ford (Affleck), a weak, transparent and simpering presence, inadequate in his own skin yet consumed by a smoldering admiration and dangerous envy of Jesse.  In one of the film's few memorable lines, Jesse, sensing tension early on, says something to the effect of, "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"  Jesse is sitting in a bucket bowl tub, with his back to Ford.  Mr. Affleck's silent reaction is priceless.  There are the odd lines of sparkling dialogue, but otherwise the screenplay (also by Mr. Dominik and based on Ron Hansen's novel) is very much unfocused.  Amazingly, Brad Pitt and Brad Grey (both of whom produced the 2006 Best Picture Oscar winner "The Departed") produced Mr. Dominik's film, along with Ridley Scott, whose brother Tony was one of the "Assassination" executive producers.

The film tracks numerous adventures, which don't go anywhere and aren't compelling enough to raise even an eyebrow of sustained interest.  Much of the film feels like build up toward the inevitable ending, which the title gives away so successfully (unless you are unaware of history or urban legend.)  Sam Rockwell also simpers along as Robert Ford's brother, Sam Shepard is Jesse James's brother Frank, Mary Louise-Parker is adequate as Zee James, Jesse's wife; Paul Schneider provides some comic relief as the eager and trigger-happy Dick Liddell, and James Carville makes a cameo appearance in the film's third hour (and that's not a spoiler, it's a wake up call.  At least for some.)  By then, it is far too late for any miracle redemption.  The train has left the station, and one won't be showing up until the next morning, leaving an audience to wander a deserted town, or walk all the way home.

The saddest thing about Mr. Dominik's film is that Casey Affleck's great performance is wasted -- it belongs in another film, and there are numerous other films that would gladly benefit.  "Assassination" works three times as hard as James Mangold's recent "3:10 To Yuma" does to make its point and convey its story in moving pictures -- and Mr. Mangold's "Yuma" is a fine remake of the original 1957 film.  The results here however, are staggeringly bad, and even the fishbowl technique of the cinematography in some scenes is also dismaying and irritating.  At the very least, the film's architects are guilty of trying to make a film whose duration essentially equals 15 minutes for each word of its ten-word title, when a one hour and 40 minute film would have done just nicely instead. 

"The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for some strong violence and brief sexual references.  The film's duration is two hours and 40 minutes, but seems much longer than that.  A word of advice: don't look at your watch or you'll really suffer the consequences. 

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