Few films are so amply summed up by their titles.
You’ve got the plot in there, for starters: Robert Ford shoots Jesse James. There’s a bit more to it, but what we essentially have is the death of Jesse James and the events that lead up to it. It’s not exactly a patch of history that film has traditionally ignored, and the supposed difference here is the promise of a demystified account, complete with the realism and psychological insight that’s been absent in previous takes.
But that title is also clumsy and horribly overlong, and that sums Dominik’s movie up just as well. There’s a superb ninety minute film here, and it’s a crying shame that no one – not the writer, not the director, producer or editor – registered that fact and cut away the acres of fat, that frequently turn The Assassination of Jesse James from a sharp, insightful ‘elegiac’ western into a bloated mess.
Make no mistake, that ninety minute masterpiece is there, plain to see, and if you can tolerate the remaining hour then you may think this is a classic. It looks better than any film this year, like an animated all-seasons calendar of the old west. It sounds nearly as good, thanks to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s subtle, jaded score. Casey Affleck as Robert Ford gives a stunning performance of self-doubt, frustration, and roiling emotion, no actor has done better work this year. There’s an awful lot to like in Andrew Dominik’s film.
It’s just a shame that it so often gets lost amidst the clutter. It’s not just that The Assassination of Jesse James is slow; it’s that it’s obstructively slow, in a way that serves no purpose except to make Dominik look terribly smart and artistic. It plods from one gorgeous, pointless set-piece to another, saying little, and worse giving no insight into a character that has become a cliché over the years, namely that of James himself. Brad Pitt, an actor just as mythologized as the character he plays, is miscast here – he gives an excellent portrayal of James the legend, but few of the clues towards James the human being that would warrant yet another treatment.
Add in a portentous voice-over – excellently written but clumsy and self-indulgent, since it frequently describes exactly what’s happening on screen – and the general impression is of a film struggling to be clever while tripping up over its own pretensions. Ford, as played by Affleck anyway, is an intriguing figure, the question of why he killed James an interesting one, and when Dominik’s focus stays on him it at least makes for an involving character study. In other moments, like the occasional and shocking explosions of violence, the film comes jarringly to life. But all these scenes do is remind you how sedentary the rest is.
Ultimately, The Assassination of Jesse James will surely prove to be a love it or hate it film. Personally I didn’t quite hate it, but I did find myself painfully bored and praying for it to end, which is hardly a recommendation. Still, there are bound to those who’ll not be put off its crawling pace, find its pretensions revealing, and – perhaps more to the point – admire it for its undoubted artistry. If you think endless, ponderous silences are revealing, or that shots of beautiful scenery are more valuable than insightful character development then chances are you’ll fall into that category and fall in love with Dominick’s sprawling, painterly take on the James legend.