Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Most films cut away after something big happens. A funny line, a dramatic revelation, or even a gun shot can act as a director’s tool to keep the audience on edge. If used well, this can be a startling effect. It is rare, however, to see a film that stays in the moment. A film that is so purposely slow paced that it remains in a scene, through its entirety. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik uses this plot device to fuel his breathtaking film.

If the characters are called in to dinner, plan to be at the table through the whole meal. If a man is trying to seduce a married woman, plan to see the complete seduction unfold before your eyes. That is what makes the film so originally thrilling, Dominik’s interest in the very fine, mundane details surrounding those big climatic moments.

Another device Dominik uses well is plot, mostly because there isn’t one. Jesse James is a film about story, and while the characters do things, they aren’t all reaching for one big feat. There’s no tracking down a pile of money, or planning a huge robbery. The film is set on following Jesse James through his last months, while beginning and ending several friendships.

Brad Pitt exceeds his career-high performance in last year’s Babel, as the iconic criminal, Jesse James. Pitt is remarkable to watch, you’ll forget the tabloid-printed face that you see every day. Pitt exemplifies a historical figure and makes him human. Dominik isn’t trying to get you to like him. He’ll show James for what he is worth. Cracking jokes one minute, and then spinning into an impulsive, mad rage the next, Pitt is convincing every step of the way. He gives James an unpredictability that will keep you guessing in every scene. It is a flawless performance, the best in an underrated career.

Equally as talented is Casey Affleck, who plays the man that became so entranced with James, he eventually killed him. Affleck gives the young Robert Ford a quiver with each word. His cracking voice personifies a uniquely built character. A dinner-table scene in which Ford recounts the similarities between he and James is creepily mesmerizing, all due to Affleck. With Jesse James and last week’s Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has proved that he is the more qualified actor in his family. It would be a sin to forget him come Oscar season.

Dominik’s only other directorial effort was the brilliant indie, Chopper. Made in 2000, Chopper is a startling true story about madman Mark “Chopper” Read, who actually cut off his own ears to get moved to a different ward while in prison. Both Chopper and Jesse James are about violent criminals who are immortalized. Although the films don’t fit an equal setting, they are both great, with Jesse James as an incredible seven-year-later, sophomore effort.

Nothing is forced in the film, every frame is deliberate. Skilled bits of narration taken from Ron Hansen’s book of the same name, and wonderfully fitting score from Nick Cave help to make this a modern day masterpiece.

The film is shot by the masterful Roger Deakins. Earlier this year, Deakins made hallways seem intimidating with In the Valley of Elah. Here he uses extended shots of the vast, wide open plains of the west to leave his stamp of perfection on the film. Deakins highlights Jesse James with subtle, yellow hues. But once snow begins to fall you will shiver in the way he lights a room using cold, blue tones. In a brilliant, five-time Oscar nominated career, Jesse James is his most illustrious film. Deakins can be added to the likes of Janusz Kaminski (Saving Private Ryan) and the late Conrad L. Hall (American Beauty) as one of the most influential men behind the camera. With Elah, Jesse James and November’s No Country for Old Men, Deakins will have one hell of a hat-trick in 2007, while firmly cementing his role as one of the best living men looking through a lens.

Dominik does a great thing in the final moments of the film. And although I’ll never reveal the scenes, I am only thankful that he learned to stay in the moment. Staying with the story, even after you think it has finished. A+

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