The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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Venice International Film Festival

At the heart of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" lies an obsessive, destructive relationship between two disparate yet oddly similar men. One will eventually kill the other. Yet this fascinating relationship gets smothered in pointlessly long takes, repetitive scenes, grim Western landscapes and mumbled, heavily accented dialogue.

The self-indulgence begins with director Andrew Dominik and infects much of the cast, who deliver meandering, unstable performances. Instead of contemplating the moral dimensions of novelist Ron Hansen's portrait of outlaw paranoia and obsession, a viewer can only think of waste -- the waste of good material and themes, a talented cast and, most crucially, the viewer's own time.

Coming from the production companies of the film's star, Brad Pitt, and Ridley and Tony Scott and based on Hansen's well received novel, the film's pedigree probably means a solid opening week, However, word of mouth may kill the movie faster than Robert Ford killed Jesse James.

For the record, Ford, played by Casey Affleck, doesn't shoot Pitt's James until 132 minutes into the 160-minute running time. Strangely, what happens afterwards is at least as interesting as what leads up to the murder. So the film also suffers from an imbalance: Too much time is lavished on the inevitable and not enough on its aftermath.

In 1881, Jesse James, age 34, is at the height of his fame as an outlaw. Bob Ford, 19, is the restless country rube and younger brother of one of James gang. He has read every nickle novel written about the infamous gang and is drawn to the scary, charismatic Jesse, who heads the gang along with his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard, who's barely in the film despite being third billed).

Most gang members are wary if not frightened of the moody Jesse and his explosive, often murderous temper, but Robert is irresistably drawn to him. It's never clear to either man whether Robert wants to be like Jesse or destroy Jesse or, somehow, become him. The film is nothing if not a meditation on a fan's obsession with a celebrity, a phenomenon now called stalking.

But Dominik, who also wrote the script, drags out this poisonous courtship with protracted scenes either virtually empty of significance or redundant. Clouds roll swiftly over western skies. The weeds flap in the breeze. Men grunt and spit and stare at one another in mockery or fear.

Then there are those accents. Whether they accurately reflect the country rube-cracker speech of 19th century Missouri or not, they frequently land on 21st century ears as unintelligible sounds. Couldn't this have been cleaned up on the ADR stage?

The film grimly -- but no doubt accurately -- portrays one of the most famous outlaw gangs in history as a collection of hicks, petty thieves and psychopathic murderers. Pitt's Jesse is a born killer who sometimes covers up his brutality with nasty humor and bursts of generosity. He's naturally paranoid and shoots anyone he suspects, whether he has reason to or not. If Robert didn't kill Jesse, Jesse surely would have killed him and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell).

Affleck's Robert is the most interesting character here. Affleck does something to his voice that makes him whiny. He talks in a whimper, and his body moves in odd, halting angles. He is handsome but doesn't seem to know it. He alternately exudes great enthusiasm or sulks. He is a man forever auditioning for a role but uncertain exactly what it is. Then he finds his role -- and learns to hate himself and the act that made him famous.

Charley is a lackey, but after the killing turns morose, hateful and suicidal as the two tour the country in a stage show where they re-enact the killing, with Charley playing Jesse. Meanwhile, two gang members, played by Paul Schneider and Jeremy Reener, carry on a feud that proves lethal for both. The women in the lives of these men, Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse's wife and Zooey Deschanel as a sympathetic friend acquired during his "stage career," are barely glimpsed.

Missouri circa 1880 in this Canadian-shot production is a raw, untamed land of rough beauty and mean accommodations. One thing of note is Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' music. They have produced a languid, often mournful score that is almost a durge. Cave, the Australian singer-songwriter, also appears in a saloon scene to sing a well-known song from that era about Jesse and Robert.

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Virtual Studios a Scott Free Productions/Plan B Entertainment production

Writer/director: Andrew Dominik
Based on the novel by: Ron Hansen
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Ridley Scott, Jules Daly, David Valdes
Executive producers: Brad Gray, Tony Scott, Lisa Ellzey, Benjamin Waisbren
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Patricia Norris
Music: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis
Costume designer: Patricia Norris
Editor: Dylan Tichenor, Curtiss Clayton

Cast:
Jesse James: Brad Pitt
Robert Ford: Casey Affleck
Frank James: Sam Shepard
Zeralda James: Mary-Louise Parker
Dick Liddil: Paul Schneider
Wood Hite: Jeremy Reener
Dorothy Evans: Zooey Deschanel
Charley Ford: Sam Rockwell
Henry Craig: Michael Parks
Sheriff Timberlake: Ted Levine
Gov. Crittenden: James Carville.

MPAA rating: R, running time 160 minutes.

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