Logically speaking, if something's good, it seems to me more of it can only be better.
Say you wake up and your back hurts and you take a couple Advil. Why not take eight bottles instead? Wouldn't that be several hundred times as effective? If I like "House" -- and Lord knows I do -- why not just watch it for two straight weeks? The only reason to sleep instead of watching Hugh Laurie insulting people is so you can dream about Hugh Laurie insulting people.
But with movies, shorter's often seen as better. It's like there's this idea that if it's not wrapped up within 120 minutes, it's because the director's self-indulgent, or a weak editor, or just plain crummy. I do it too -- when I checked the listings for "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," one of my first thoughts (after laughing, for no less than the 15th time, at its title) was "Oh swear words, I'm going to be in that theater for three hours. Come on, people, I'm a busy man, there's still a few episodes of 'Futurama' I haven't memorized." But, dutiful and noble as ever, which is lots, I got my pen and my paper and I went.
Wearing his self-loathing in his eyes and his grin like his only set of clothes, Casey Affleck (as Robert Ford) has worshipped Brad Pitt (as Jesse James) since he was a kid. Grown up -- kind of -- he joins Pitt's depleted gang for one last train robbery that just brings more heat down on Pitt's legendary head.
As Pitt lays low, his crew starts to dissolve, infighting and trying to gauge if there's a way to cash in on Pitt's bounty without getting shot down by him, a tricky proposition when Pitt seems to know everything that's going on and moves to stamp out their treason like a force of nature.
For Affleck, though, his situation's about more than money. He wants to be Pitt, to be larger than life in a way few men are, and when he begins to figure out he just doesn't have it in him, he begins to believe he should destroy Pitt instead.
It's a many-threaded plot that spools out as gradually as the arc of a 600-page novel, but man, does it pay off. Pitt and Affleck are given the space to find the personalities behind their American icons and play them as if they were them.
Writer/director Andrew Dominik's script hinges on long conversations, alternating between the relaxed talk of criminals between jobs and the tense, one-word-from-bloodshed confrontations that come when things start to head south. They're the kind of scenes that would normally be trimmed to keep things brisk. Here, they're assets, showing just how hard fame begins to wear on Pitt, one of America's first modern celebrities, and on Affleck, who suffers the insults and dismissal of the gang when he's a nobody and still can't escape his basic cowardice and the scorn that comes with it once he's become as notorious as Pitt.
It all feels very literary, but Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen's book gets the most out itself as a movie, too. Director of photography Roger Deakins' shots are crystal-clear; the supporting acting, led by Sam Rockwell as Affleck's brother, is nothing short of awesome; the action scenes are rare for a western about an infamous killer, but when they come they're so cold and straightforward they hit the gut in a way that written descriptions of violence can rarely, if ever, pull off.
It's going to rub some people the wrong way. It might feel too slow and deliberate -- and there's no denying it is 160 minutes long. For others, it's going to be haunting, filled with wandering dialogue that justifies itself with its humor and menace and its perfectly realized perception of three deeply tragic lives.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is the kind of bleak western that would have felt at home among the greats of the '70s, but its understanding of the price of becoming a legend makes it a masterpiece of its own.