The movie with the longest title this year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, may also be one of the year's best. Featuring terrific performances and a long but thoughtful screenplay, Jesse James isn't your ordinary western, but it is certainly a tour de force in its own right.
Jesse James stars Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the two title character, Pitt playing the famous outlaw and Affleck as the man who would eventually put the legend to rest - literally. This movie could feature the best performances by both actors - ever. You first notice Affleck as Ford, a nervous, socially awkward individual who wants to fit in, and who wants to be his hero Jesse James. Throughout the film, you watch as the character is slowly stripped of his idealism and respect for the man he has cherished since he was a child, and Affleck handles this decay with great ability. Affleck really shines in the last half hour as director Andrew Dominik finally allows us to connect with the character on a truly emotional level. For most of the movie, you so desperately want to stand firmly behind Affleck, but the type of person he plays makes it difficult; in the end, though, you can finally see life through his eyes, and it is truly devastating. Both Affleck's performance and Dominik's handling of the story is like pressing to see through a faded window, and then finally breaking through.
Equal to Affleck is Pitt, who for the longest time doesn't overpower any scenes and then, suddenly, does. It's not until deep into the movie that Pitt suddenly unleashes the full fury of his character, and almost instantly you are blown away by the fact that the man has been strong since the film started over two hours earlier. Like Affleck only more extreme, Pitt's masterful performance grows on you as time goes on, and his final half hour on screen is definitely a highlight. There's one scene preceeding James' murder where he holds a knife to Bob's throat; this is a scene I would love to see played as a clip at the Oscars to demonstrate his performance.
Sadly, due to the box office performance of the movie, I would be a bit surprised to see either of these men nominated, but both truly deliver Oscar-worthy performances. The movie itself is also a Top Ten candidate, though due to its slow, meditating story and long running time, it isn't the kind of fodder that Oscar voters usually go for.
Dominik, in only the second attempt of his career (his first being 2000's Australian film Chopper), has written and directed a powerful, award-worthy film. It isn't for everyone, as it relies heavily on dialogue and characters. It isn't an action movie, and in fact only covers the final robbery of Jesse James' life and the events that followed over the next several years. Still, the pacing is strong for the most part and the movie never gets boring, though I could have done with 10 or 15 minutes of editing in the middle. There are a few drawn out parts where Dominik attempts to do just a bit too much, but overall Jesse James flows remarkably well. The writing is certainly top notch, and the narration by Hugh Ross also works in its favor. Even though there are a few stumbling points partway through the movie, Jesse James ends on a high note as the last half hour or so are perfect.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford reminded me a lot of Terrence Malick's The New World, a slow, almost dreamlike character study that looked beautiful and seemed to move at a natural pace. The New World was my number one pick in 2005. Jesse James doesn't quite reach that same plateau, but it comes close. Unfortunately, in a year where there have been so many good films, who knows how high this one will rank at the end of the year, but comparisons aside, Jesse James is one of the best movies of 2007.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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