Movie News & Reviews

Experiencing "Assassination of Jesse James" is time well-spent

Logically speaking, if something's good, it seems to me more of it canonly 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 hundredtimes as effective? If I like "House" -- and Lord knows I do -- why notjust watch it for two straight weeks? The only reason to sleepinstead of watching Hugh Laurie insulting people is so you can dreamabout Hugh Laurie insulting people.

But with movies, shorter's often seen as better. It's like there'sthis idea that if it's not wrapped up within 120 minutes, it's becausethe director's self-indulgent, or a weak editor, or just plain crummy.I do it too -- when I checked the listings for "The Assassination ofJesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," one of my first thoughts(after laughing, for no less than the 15th time, at its title) was "Ohswear words, I'm going to be in that theater for three hours. Comeon, 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 setof clothes, Casey Affleck (as Robert Ford) has worshipped Brad Pitt(as Jesse James) since he was a kid. Grown up -- kind of -- he joinsPitt's depleted gang for one last train robbery that just brings moreheat down on Pitt's legendary head.

As Pitt lays low, his crew starts to dissolve, infighting and tryingto gauge if there's a way to cash in on Pitt's bounty without gettingshot down by him, a tricky proposition when Pitt seems to knoweverything that's going on and moves to stamp out their treason like aforce of nature.

For Affleck, though, his situation's about more than money. He wantsto be Pitt, to be larger than life in a way few men are, and when hebegins to figure out he just doesn't have it in him, he begins tobelieve he should destroy Pitt instead.

It's a many-threaded plot that spools out as gradually as the arc of a600-page novel, but man, does it pay off. Pitt and Affleck are giventhe space to find the personalities behind their American icons andplay 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 thetense, one-word-from-bloodshed confrontations that come when thingsstart to head south. They're the kind of scenes that would normallybe trimmed to keep things brisk. Here, they're assets, showing justhow hard fame begins to wear on Pitt, one of America's first moderncelebrities, and on Affleck, who suffers the insults and dismissal ofthe gang when he's a nobody and still can't escape his basic cowardiceand the scorn that comes with it once he's become as notorious asPitt.

It all feels very literary, but Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen'sbook gets the most out itself as a movie, too. Director ofphotography Roger Deakins' shots are crystal-clear; the supportingacting, led by Sam Rockwell as Affleck's brother, is nothing short ofawesome; the action scenes are rare for a western about an infamouskiller, but when they come they're so cold and straightforward theyhit the gut in a way that written descriptions of violence can rarely, ifever, pull off.

It's going to rub some people the wrong way. It might feel too slowand deliberate -- and there's no denying it is 160 minutes long. Forothers, it's going to be haunting, filled with wandering dialogue thatjustifies itself with its humor and menace and its perfectly realizedperception 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.

Grade: A