Cinematic events always seem to circle each other. Whenever there's a certain genre that makes a re-entrance, they strike in twos. And, more often than not, they're opposite mirror images of themselves. There was the disaster movie trend in the late 90's where "Dante's Peak" went against "Volcano" and "Deep Impact" situated itself against the more frenetic "Armageddon" (ok, so these two examples aren't that opposite!) Then, in 1998 you had the epic World War 2 drama make a splash with modern audiences in the likes of Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" and Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line"- two films that take dramatic verges from each other in tone and outlook. And even further back than that, in 1994, the first real push towards re-imagining the western genre was completed by competitive studios when they released "Tombstone" and "Wyatt Earp". Even though "Tombstone" was the more commercially accepted enterprise, I've always held a fondness for Kevin Costner's more lengthy and detailed portrait of the gunslinger as ensemble epic. Now, in 2007, the western has again made a concerted effort to reclaim its position in cinema as a viable commodity on-screen. While "3:10 To Yuma" is the grittier, more socially-conscious effort, I've just witnessed its evil doppelganger in the form of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford". At just under 3 hours, Dominik's film is an uncompromising and lyrical addition to the western genre that feels soul-cleansing in the way he allows images to linger and mood to drown out the ordinary tempo of filmmaking. This is a stunning work.
Dominik wisely lets the cat out of the bag in his 10 word title. There's no mystery here as to how this tale will end. By knowing that Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) will shoot Jesse James (Brad Pitt) in the back on a date given in the film's first 5 minutes, Dominik has exorcised the means of fashioning a whodunit. Instead, we're allowed to translate the various conversations, underlying motives and nervous energy with a jaundiced eye. Casey Affleck, as Bob Ford, is nothing short of a revelation in this performance. Just watch how (in one pivotal dinner scene) the camera holds on his facial gestures in an uncomfortably long single take as Jesse James talks. You could write that, but its perfection in how Affleck translates that on-screen. "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is also part psychological horror. Since the film begins at the last robbery committed by the gang, the remainder of the film's 2 hour and 30 minute running time concerns the fissures that grow in the increasingly paranoid mind of Jesse James. He begins to visit each of his old gang in their various hideouts, assessing whether they'll give him up or not. Likewise, crime is put on the back burner by his gang as they roll through ordinary events post-robbery. There's the way Dick Liddle (played incredibly by Paul Schneider) continues with his sexual exploits. There's Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), older brother to Bob who plays the middle ground whenever he's caught between the charismatic presence of Jesse and his young brother. And there's the violence that erupts between Liddle and Wood Height (Jeremy Renner) over a girl. These events may feel like unnecessary languors, padding in a film that could have been wrapped up in 105 minutes, but Dominik is after something else here. This is a deep character study of two opposing forces mounted against a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop of land and snow and trees. Something of that magnitude takes time, and Dominik allows the characters to breath.
Even after the famous event in the title has happened, Dominik's film carries on a little longer to play out the (mis) fortunes of Bob Ford. And it's here that Bob Ford's true character arch presents itself. Even though the title bears both men's names, this is really Ford's story. And after the film's many gunshots (which literally often come out of nowhere and made me jump in my seat several times) the way Dominik frames and edits the film's conclusion feels like a magnificent attempt to fittingly apply the novelistic nature of his tale. "The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford" is a masterpiece.