"Jesse James" | Shot through with mood and talent
Those fond of the Western genre are in luck this season, with two good but very different examples at the multiplexes: the taut actors'...
Seattle Times movie critic
Those fond of the Western genre are in luck this season, with two good but very different examples at the multiplexes: the taut actors' showcase that is "3:10 to Yuma" and the dreamy, meandering retelling of a familiar legend, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, from the novel by Ron Hansen, the movie has an almost hypnotic quality; its spare and often beautiful shots seem to sear themselves into the camera's lens.
Unlike "3:10 to Yuma" and many Westerns, "The Assassination" isn't about suspense; we're told what's going to happen in the film's title. Rather, it's about mood and theatricality. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was a young man — just 19 — who joined the band of notorious outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and one day shot him in the back. Bob, a quiet youth, was fascinated with James, staring at him "as if he were preparing an impersonation," as the film's voice-over narrator tells us. He was the audience for James' performances, and Pitt plays James as a confident actor, with a cackling, precise laugh. Late in the movie, the tables are intriguingly turned as Ford literally becomes the actor, on stage in an eerie re-enactment of the moment that made him famous.
Dominik, cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Patricia Norris (the latter two both five-time Oscar nominees) give the movie the elegant spareness of a stage set. The actors often seem carefully posed in tableaux under sepia lights; the interior sets are simple and off-white. A candle, blown out in a dark scene, is given time to fade; we watch the last of its tiny dot of glow. Even in the film's largest scene, set at an elegant party (watch for a sly cameo by James Carville), the women's dresses are in tones of cream; the color's been virtually drained from this movie, like a faded photograph from an ancient album.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" sometimes seems as long as its title; Dominik gives it a deliberately stately pace, pausing the action to let us devour the image of a group of dark-coated men moving slowly forward in a wheat field, or a single man in black (James) silhouetted in front of a train whose onrushing movement seems to slice the night in two. There are moments when it feels endless, and moments when you don't want it to end. Dominik, who's only made one film (the violent Australian drama "Chopper") before this one, is clearly a talent to watch.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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