Thursday, October 14, 2010

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

At the Movies with Michael5000

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

Ebert: 3 1/2 Stars
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%

My Official Preconception: This was on the optional list, so this is an unofficial preconception: I had a sense that it would be a Western drama about the assassination of Jesse James by the purported coward Robert Ford.


There are, among real movie critics, two schools of thought about this movie.  One is that it is a brilliantly crafted and deeply effective psychological drama.  The other is that is a bit of a muddle, visually very pretty but difficult to follow and a bit of a chore to watch.  Both opinions are correct.

Let's start with the weaknesses.  The movie (hereinafter AJJCRF) aims at historical veracity, and seems to hit the mark for the most part.  It also details the complex relationships among a dozen or so men from the same social class over a series of several months.  They all, with great historical accuracy, dress pretty much the same, have similar names, and have similar concerns and mannerisms.  Although some attempt has been made to sort them out by haircut, the passage of time demands that hair grow out and beards come and go.  As a result of all this accuracy, it is essentially impossible to keep track of who everyone is, let alone why they are sometimes very nervous in each other's presence, or why they occasionally feel the need to shoot each other.  Occasional expository voice-overs reminiscent of the narration in a Ken Burns documentary completely fail to clarify anything.

All of this is fairly frustrating, of course, but if you have the patience to just roll with the confusion it won't really matter in the end.  Instead of trying to figure out what the characters are up to, I advise kicking back and just enjoying the scenary.  For AJJCRF is the kind of film that I think of as a true "moving picture" -- its sheer visual beauty is really quite something.  There is plenty of very attractive time lapse photography (which will have you chanting "Koy-yan-is-qat-si" if you are of a certain frame of mind), but also a lovely range of visual effects that mimic 19th Century photography.  The color palette is elegantly spare, creating a consistent mood of bleak decline.  Check out the scene where Jesse James and his family walk to church; it serves almost no narrative function, but it is so goddamn pretty it nearly took my breath away.   Serious.

The AJJCRF soundtrack is a generally effective partner in the business of mood-creation, but I would note in passing that it is possible to overdo it with the hurdy-gurdy.

Anyway, back to the narrative.  You have the very famous and very excellent actor Brad Pitt playing the notorious outlaw Jesse James, and this misdirects us a bit.  It makes us assume that this is a film about Jesse James.  It's not, really.  True to the title, this is a film about Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James.  More than two hours of screen time is spent establishing the strange relationship between these two men, showing the psychological decline of the outlaw and establishing why Ford, who admires James more than is entirely healthy, ultimately chooses to kill him.  The best stretch of the movie -- the point at which it redeems itself for its flaws in pacing and storytelling -- is the coda, the portion after James is dead, when Ford must face the strange consequences of having killed a celebrity criminal figure.

Prognosis: * * * 1/4 -- Well, why not.  I can't decide whether to give it 3 or 3 1/2 stars, so this will reflect my views precisely while vexing KarmaSartre at no extra cost.

This came close to being a great movie.  If a little more work had been put into distinguishing the characters and clarifying the action of the first 4/5ths of the film -- or perhaps if its running time had simply been trimmed down a bit -- its superb strengths would not have to be weighed against its significant flaws.  Very highly recommended for those interested in American history, the glamorization of criminality, cinematic photography, and/or Brad Pitt.


Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you chose to watch this. I loved it.

Jenners said...

Hmmm...well I am into Brad Pitt but this film never called to me.

Michael5000 said...

Life is filled with difficult choices.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

That's a rough title if you're a descendant of Ford. They really call him out!

Michael5000 said...

I don't want to give away the end, Dr. Ken, but it turns out there aren't any descendants of Ford. Besides, he's been called out routinely by every bluegrass picker and grinner for the last century and change.