Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

***½
USA



In revising the cult-friendly allure of Jesse James and his death through existential malaise, ruthless skull-obliterating and a moody-muddy palette, Andrew Dominik is openly riffing on the likes of Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman. On the one hand, this is commendable, but on the other hand, if he wasn't calling on such forbidding connotations, his own film could much more comfortably be categorised as a success. This way its shortcomings are all the more conspicuous: the unproductive book-on-tape voiceover; the polite, generic score; the role of women restricted to voiceless housewifery; the conspicuous abundance of rippling wheat fields; the turgid, squinting wisdom-dispensing. The movie is as infatuated with itself as it is with Jesse James and Robert Ford.

As Jesse James Brad Pitt hogs most of the monologues and top billing, but it's Casey Affleck as Bob Ford who delivers the depth, gives the movie oxygen and some murky, arresting humanity. Effacing any trace of ego, he's as subtle and natural when his voice shivers as the star-struck teenager, when it catches as the put-upon youngest brother and when it rips as the charred national pariah. A thing of unassuming beauty, his performance counterpoints the movie's mannered lyricism and pushes it onto a human plane.

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