Photograph by Kimberley French
I'M YOUNGER THAN I LOOK, REALLY: Sam Shepard as Frank James tries to look only four— instead of 20—years older than Brad Pitt's Jesse.
'The Assassination of Jesse James': Don't shoot Jesse, shoot the narrator
By Richard von Busack
THERE IS an early scene in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in which we think we're going to get as much brio, say, as Samuel Fuller's 81-minute I Shot Jesse James (which this wallowing epic sources for a couple of its better scenes). In the woods, 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. Jesse (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 by a narrator. 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 film is meant to be Malickious, a reflection of the outlaw in fading mirrors. The antihero is as suspicious and foredoomed as Tony Soprano, only without any of the sweets of life (unless you call a meal of snake meat sweet). The groaning cellos and an endless mosquito whine of violins, derived I guess from Carter Burwell's Scandinavian fiddles for Fargo, are easier to bear than the narration. 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, and almost hypertextual trivia, is spelled out for us.
This epic is derived from Santa Clara University professor Ron Hansen's 1983 novel. Hansen's Catholic 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 prairies capped with time-lapsed cloud chambers and Daguerreotype colors; snow showers are almost always on the way. The supporting actors stand around and do what they can. Sam Rockwell provides some lightness as a soft-witted, good-humored Charley Ford. A disapproving Sam Shepard (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 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: it's What Price Deadwood. The Assassination of Jesse James 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.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (R; 160 min.), directed by Andrew Dominik, written by Dominick, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, photographed by Roger Deakins and starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, plays valleywide.
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