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Photograph by Richard von Busack
Pitt, Stop!: 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,' produced by and starring Brad Pitt, lays the religious imagery on a little thick.

Review: "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Oh, boy. Another blibbity, blabbity Western epic.

By Richard von Busack

There's an early scene in The Assassination of Jesse James in which we think we're going to get as much brio as, say, Samuel Fuller's 81-minute long I Shot Jesse James (which this wallowing epic sources for a couple of its better scenes). In a wood, the members of the James gang wait for their final train robbery at Blue Cut; they boil their stew and talk about the ladies in terms women might not like to hear. At last, the train puffs up to their roadblock. The gang crawls out of the woods in their homemade goblin masks, torn out of stained tow sacks. Jessie (Brad Pitt), black bandana around his face, steps into the track to slow down the train with his pistols, and the steam of the brakes surrounds him like an aura.

But then the rest of the movie unfolds: impossibly wordy, each spavined sentence intoned on the soundtrack. It's a Western epic for our times, a depressing Jesse James opera for the end of his career. Even the horses need Prozac. The Assassination is meant to be Malicklicious, a reflection of the outlaw in fading mirrors. The anti-hero is as suspicious and foredoomed as Tony Soprano, only without any of the sweets of life.

The soundtrack consists of groaning cellos and an endless mosquito whine of violins, derived, I guess, from Carter Burwell's Scandinavian fiddles on the Fargo soundtrack. That drone is easier to bear than the narration. It won't quit. Some of the fancier locutions made me think of Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles: "Boss, you use your tongue prettier than a $20 whore." Every motive and gesture is spelled out for us.

This epic is derived from SCU professor Ron Hansen's 1983 novel. Hansen is a devout Catholic, and that faith has certainly soaked into his idea of Jesse as an almost-anagram of Jesus. (The narrator, Johnny-on-the-spot, reminds us that Jesse took his fatal bullet from his Judas during Holy Week.) But is he Jesus or a man who's gotta do, etc? The narrator reminds us (again, telling not showing) that Jesse considered himself a guerrilla soldier in a Civil War without end. Strangely, some of the other reasons for James' killing streak (Pinkerton detectives blowing off his mother's arm with a bomb, for instance) get left behind.

Visually, the film is a cold day in the park. Director Andrew Dominik shot in the Canadian prairie capped with time-lapsed cloud chambers and Daguerreotype colors; snow showers are almost always on the way. The supporting cast stands around and does what it can. Sam Rockwell provides some lightness as a soft-witted, good-humored Charlie Ford. A disapproving Sam Shepherd (a mite old for the role of Frank James) walks out of the picture; and Jesse's wife and first cousin Zee is Mary-Louise Parker, gasping for direction.

Missourian Brad Pitt must have wanted to play Jesse James since he was old enough to talk. Yet it's clear why he produced the film at this stage of his fame. Taken from all angles, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) is a hero-worshipping punk who destroys his master. The Assassination is one of those stories that means so much to a movie star and so little to those of us who don't attract pestering sycophants.

Movie Times THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES by the Coward Robert Ford (R; 160 min.), directed and written by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, opens Friday at the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz.

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