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A gorgeous hypnotic odyssey
on 16 July 2008
I felt in two minds about watching this film , half expecting it to be dolorous ,sombre, dull art-house exercise requiring resolute cinematic stamina . Not for the first time I was completely wrong .The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is as gorgeous and hypnotic a film as I have ever seen .
The title does of course give way what is going to happen in this film but the real drama comes from the way the narrative explores the relationship between the two men and how circumstances dictate what fates befall both of them.
When we meet them both its September 1881 and they are both preparing to rob a train as part of the infamous James gang . Most of the gang we are informed by the films lyrical voice over ( Hugh Ross)are either dead or in prison but the two remaining James brothers Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse(Brad Pitt) are leading the heist. Also part of the gang are the Ford brothers Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck) Robert has a fan worship thing going on with Jesse and this marks the start of their bond , though not before the more worldly wise Frank says of Bob Ford "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
It's a perspicacious comment as Bob is a bit creepy and is brilliantly portrayed by Affleck as such - ostensibly a sort of cowboy stalker. Jesse finds him amusing at first then comes to trust him before an all round paranoia and brooding malevolence takes over his character . These two borderline psycho's are well matched in many respects but the film adapted by director Andrew Dominick from the book by Robert Hansen takes its time in getting under the skin of these two characters so we understand implicitly how Ford comes to shooting Jesse James .This is complex and fully requires the lengthy running time in order to do it full justice.
Interestingly the film also explores Fords life post the shooting where he becomes a media celebrity in his own right yet is wracked by guilt and is thoroughly miserable.
The acting is top-notch throughout. Affleck as I alluded earlier is spookily good while Pitt is someone I often find irritating because he mumbles, but in this he's terrific- veering convincingly from wide eyed boyish enthusiasm to menacing glowers or explosive rage. Paul Schneider as gang member Dick Liddil a laconic poetry spouting lothario is especially good, though Mary Louise Parker as James wife Zee is given an underwritten role.
The real star of the film though is the cinematography of Roger Deakins, whose work with the Coen brothers has garnered plaudit's .He gives the film a sepia nostalgic glow but captures the landscape , vast fields of swaying corn or barren snow covered homesteads , magically. The landscapes become more frigid echoing the increasingly frosty relationship between the characters. The scene of a train robbery at night is one of transcendental and startling beauty. The soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is eerily spot on too.
Yes this film is slow but it's also thoroughly engrossing . It is truly insidiously compelling and though many will feel it's padded out , which is often my opinion of many films,I feel that not a frame is wasted in this movie. It truly is a masterpiece of the cinematic art -an all too rare commodity nowadays. Hugely commendable .