THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
***/**** Image A Sound A
starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell
screenplay by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen
directed by Andrew Dominik
by Walter Chaw Kiwi director Andrew Dominick's heroically pretentious The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (hereafter Jesse James) is a deflated anti-western in the tradition of Peter Fonda's The Hired Hand and Terrence Malick's Badlands. Broadly, it's a magnification of the Nixonian malaise that infected the early-Seventies, its suggestion that things aren't much worse now than they were then complicated by three decades of cynicism. As a piece, it's almost completely sapped of energy, though it isn't deadpan like Jarmusch's Dead Man. No, think of it as more of a dirge: not ironic, but post-modern; not a death march, but mournful. It's how J. Hoberman once (derisively) described Body Heat, a "remake without an original"--Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid corrupted by McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the whole of it shot through with an autumnal soft focus that looks exactly like the reunion sequence that pushes the third act of Bonnie and Clyde. It vaguely resembles an insect caught in an amber sepulchre. Yet despite its obvious pedigree, it is all of itself, infused with the spirit of the now, suffused with author Ron Hansen's transcendental prettiness (the film is based on his novel), and, as framed by DP Roger Deakins's painterly eye, overwhelmingly beautiful. Deakins is given the keys to the kingdom here and every moment of Jesse James looks like mythology pulled through a cinematic loom, often leaving the edges of the frame lanolin-indistinct as they trail off into history. I hadn't thought it possible to see our current crises of faith cast as romantic, but there it is.