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STUDIO: Warner Bros.
RUNNING TIME: 160 Minutes
- Real Plastic Case!
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writer: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen (novel)
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Cast: Brad Pitt. Casey Affleck. Sam Shepard. Sam Rockwell. Ted Levine. Mary-Louise Parker. Jeremy Renner. Zooey Dechanel. James Carville. Nick Cave. Michael Parks.
Instead of catering to Western staples, the filmmakers let the air out of the balloon and tell a very artful and spacious tale with very little action, a dearth of stereotypical dialogue, and a very sharp sense of humor and intelligence that defies expectations. Then again, when people typically go see a Western they prepare for bloodshed, familiar and snappy banter, and as little experimentation as possible.
Which might be why so few people saw this movie.
Jesse James [Brad Pitt] is weary. He lives under an immense shadow, a legacy built on violence and mistrust and expounded on in dime store novels and legends. After one big last train robbery goes worse than expected Jesse’s older brother Frank [leathery class act Sam Shepard] takes his leave of the “gang” and what was once a collection of reliable rogues becomes a morass of indecision and fear.
Fiercely protective of his family and assumed identity, Jesse becomes neurotic to a fault and his inner circle of conspirators become targeted men in his eyes. A strong man begins to weaken, the most obvious flaw coming in his acceptance of Robert Ford [Casey Affleck] into his cadre after some campaigning by the young man’s brother Charley [Sam Rockwell]. Robert Ford’s history and Jesse James’ are tied together if the title of the film isn’t clear enough.
But this isn’t a film about the end of Jesse James as much as it is about fear and mistrust and the cost of fame.
Robert Ford idolizes Jesse James as I’m sure many of the young men of the day did. He’s a larger than life hero who somehow managed to be beloved and feared and proof that even back in the day the media coverage had a funny way of overriding truth and morality. The early moments in the film showcase both Ford brothers as shy and slightly annoying wannabes who are rebuffed by the experienced and wary Frank and Jesse. It showcases how a few little nudges here and there turn the world’s biggest fan into the man whose envy and weakness made him into the coward of the film’s title.
Superficially, Robert Ford is a really weak leading character but he is undoubtedly the star of the piece. Brad Pitt’s Jesse James gets a lot of screen time but the sheer enigmatic nature of the older gunslinger renders him almost as a force of nature, especially when married with the film’s extremely effective narration by Hugh Ross [sounding at times like Richard Dreyfus of all people]. When seen as a sad tale about a sad man, the choice of Ford as the protagonist makes all the sense in the world because even if Jesse James is a bit too gregarious as he picks off his old companions Robert Ford’s childish decisions ultimately make the loss of Jesse James an incredible one while Ford’s punishment seems apt. Thankfully, Casey Affleck dives deep into a very unlikable character, squeaking out sentences and balancing the character’s sneakily effective ability to poison those around him with a spark of “what if” that assures you if given the chance he could have been legendary instead of simply notorious.
It’s a fantastic performance in a film loaded with uniformly excellent ones. Brad Pitt doesn’t get much credit for his work here, but I feel he unfolds quite a few new tricks here in creating a character who could have easily coasted on charisma and he seems to enjoy some of the uglier aspects more. Sam Shepard adds so much weight to the few scenes he’s in and Sam Rockwell is appropriately unkempt and goofy as the weak-willed Charley Ford. The rest of the gang is excellent and filled with lesser-known but very capable performers [Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Schneider, and Jeremy Renner in particular]. But, it is the big coming out party for Casey Affleck and a western that really takes things away from the center to the fringe where genre really is served best.
Someone whose opinion I trust implicitly told me that this film felt a little too Days of Heaven to be its own animal and though there’s definitely a visual similarity [when does Terence Malick not shoot blowing grass?] I feel this film has so much grit and class that it’s a more rewarding experience.
Plus, Richard Gere isn’t in this.
Andrew Dominik make the excellent Chopper and promptly hid in the shadows before writing and directing this film to near perfection. Much has been said about how the film was reshaped in editing and I’d give your left nut to see the original cut, but this product is eloquent and artful without become too oblique. The dialogue is always smart and often bitingly hilarious and it showcases men of the time as about a little more than just discussions of women, booze, and fighting. Coupled with the narration, the film stays on a narrative path but is free to float on the amazing Roger Deakins cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ music.
If Roger Deakins doesn’t win the Oscar this year for this film there’s something wrong with the system and though I feel the Cave-written The Proposition is a severly flawed movie, the visual and sonic approach the film takes pushes it over the top.
This is a classic movie. A slightly flawed masterpiece even. If it doesn’t move you with its class, beauty, or counter-approach to Hollywood genre filmmaking I don’t what to do with ya.
The DVD fits nicely into the case and the case fits wonderfully on a shelf next to other DVDs. Ones with features.
9.3 out of 10
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