Mosaic / Reviews / February 28, 2008

One more time back in the saddle

Welcome to the post-Oscars doldrums, a drought in the multiplexes that comes after the boiling point of the cinematic season. The greats of moviemaking are taking an after Oscars nap, giving folks like Larry the Cable Guy and Jessica Alba a chance to rule the roost; so insulate yourself from it all with a thoroughly padded Netflix queue, and rent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

At two hours and forty-five minutes, it’s precise and plodding pacing may have been slightly straining in the theater, but with the DVD version enabling an intermission at any time, it’s quite enjoyable. The film is an intense character study of both James and Ford, and of an entire gang complex that is full of well developed characters.

The film covers the twilight years of James’ gang, and the disintegration of the co-conspirators, brought on by the stress of their life on the lam. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a newcomer to the gang, has read about Jesse James since he was a boy, and longs to prove himself to his idol, but slowly learns that he is not working with the same Jesse James he read about in his youth.

Ford’s disillusionment with his idol is the driving force of the movie, and it’s easy to see how the performance earned Affleck a Best Supporting Actor nomination by both the Academy and the Golden Globes.

Brad Pitt is equally impressive as the decaying outlaw Jesse James. It’s great to see him in a challenging role like this, and I saw glimpses of the frayed state of mind he portrayed in Twelve Monkeys. Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, and Jeremy Renner fill out the rest of the gang with their own brooding and dense performances. The character drama is complex, to say the least, but the film makes use of a sparse narration that doesn’t spoon-feed the viewer everything.

The Assassination of Jesse James is a great looking movie, taking advantage of the way Missouri’s golden grain fields become barren, frozen wastelands. The film features a visual motif of showing Jesse James through blurring, strangely focused lenses and panes of glass that distort his image. This meshes nicely with Robert Ford’s shifting perception of James, and helped the film land an Oscar nomination for cinematography.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford may have left the Oscars empty-handed (although it did take the Australia Film Critic’s Best Foreign Film), but the competition wasn’t exactly undeserving. Going up against films like No Country for Old Menand There Will Be Blood, you can see why it may have been ignored. If those powerhouse westerns left you with a taste for more spurs and saddles, Jesse James is the movie for you.

Alex Roth

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