Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)

And I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford
I'm low as a paid assassin is
You know I'm cold as a hired sword
I'm so ashamed, can't we patch it up?
I can't think straight no more
You make me feel like a bullet, honey, in the gun of Robert Ford

- Elton John, "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)"

Come on, it's all about the title. Just as it may be too lengthy and ambitious for its own good and yet still manages to stand out from the pack by sheer dint of its own atypicality, so the film itself fails to go gently into that dark night of the conventional. There are about four different movies here and it seems like the filmmakers didn't bother to decide which one of the four they wanted to make. But when most films are only half a movie, why complain?

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is like a strange cross between The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The King Of Comedy. In the first film, the titular character is perceived as a hero. In the second film, the protagonist is perceived as an obsessive creep. So what do we make of Robert Ford, then, with his recalcitrant eyes and solicitious demeanor? He's one of those people with low self-esteem, who knows he has low self-esteem, and who'll stand around and talk with you about why his self-esteem is so low, in the hopes that if he talks about it enough, somehow he'll find some self-esteem. Upon first meeting Bob, Jesse's brother Frank observes, "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies." Casey Affleck gives a career-making performance as a cringe-worthy loner whose very presence reminds people of their inner Rupert Pupkin.

And yet what in the hell is so great about Jesse James? He's a back-stabbing, two-timing thief, murderer, and unrepentant Confederate rebel. In other words, he's a big piece of shit. And yet somehow or other, Jesse James has become a "hero" in our popular culture, and Robert Ford has become a "coward." Go figure. Again, it all comes back to the film's title. The most jarring word in that verbose appellation, of course, is "coward." It's a pretty harsh judgement to bestow upon a character before the movie has even begun, no? And yet, I think The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford calls into question the fairness of that particular label. If Bob Ford was a coward, then what the hell was Jesse James? A psychopath?

That is the movie at its best. But there is a lot of solemn and ponderous rambling in between. Several minor characters wander in and out of the story and I was barely for the life of me able to understand who these people were or what they had to do with Jesse James and Robert Ford. The film is two-and-a-half hours long, but in a way, the first two hours could have been edited down to one hour without much loss, and it would have saved more time for (what I thought of as) the best stuff: the exploration of why we idolize criminals and demonize assassins. Indeed, the film doesn't really take off until the last half hour, which for reviewing purposes is unfortunate because, although only the most dunderheaded would expect to see Jesse James avoid assassination, there are some delightful surprises I would be remiss to reveal. Let me just say that the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford may not be the only assassination in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. Ultimately, I wanted to see more of that self-aware, revisionist tone and less of the wannabe Terrence Malick ambiance. Andrew Dominik, after debuting with the memorably schizoid Chopper, is creating a solid body of work for himself, but I can't help but wonder what a Tarantino or a P.T. Anderson would have done with this material. It needed to be more fun.

And yet even though I think the film is disappointing, that's only because it lays so much on the table. As soon as the film ended, I immediately began reading about Jesse James and Robert Ford on Wikipedia and it seemed to me that there were a number of fascinating aspects to this story that the film does not explore. The movie definitely underplays the unrepentant Confederate rebel business, for example. I mean, Brad Pitt is very good as Jesse James, but I get the impression that the real Jesse James was a smelly, sickly, repugnant son of a bitch. In fact, the more I learned about the real Jesse James, the higher Robert Ford rose in my estimation.

So although with a little pruning the film could have been a modern Wild Bunch or McCabe & Mrs. Miller, as it is, it knocks 3:10 To Yuma out of the water. And at least now Bernie Taupin won't have to keep explaining to everybody what "I Feel Like A Bullet (In The Gun Of Robert Ford)" is all about.

"Film critic" rating: **1/2
"Little Earl" rating: ***1/2


Anonymous said...

The family of Jesse James have posted their own 5 page review of this movie on their family web site, together with stories about the James family’s former experiences with Hollywood and Jesse James movies.

Anonymous said...
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Herr Zrbo said...

I had zero clue who either of these people were until I checked out the Wikipedia link. I kept thinking the movie had something to do with Ford's theater, I guess I was wrong.