Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Brooding 'Jesse James' falls flat

Try as they might, they can’t quite get it right.

Oh, they’ve come close. "Lonesome Dove" was darn good, even if it was on TV. Ditto for Tom Selleck’s flicks on TNT. "Unforgiven" and "Open Range" come darn close.

But Hollywood still hasn’t figured out how to make a classic western in the last 30 years. The last great one was "The Shootist" in 1976. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Which brings us to "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the long, brooding account of the famous outlaw’s death by writer/director Andrew Dominik. It isn’t that this is a bad film – far from it. It’s just not a good western.

The film tells the story of the final days of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and the pathetic saga of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the weasel that kills him. Theirs is a curious relationship, one filled with dark undertones and ambiguous feelings.

That’s probably why Dominik structures his picture in a similar fashion. It’s interesting, it has its moments, but in the end falls flat. These characters spend a lot of time talking to one another. Which is fine, because at its best the western is the perfect vehicle for character development and philosophical discourse. But at a two-and-one-half hour running time, "Assassination" is in desperate need of action and we don’t get much.

Pitt is his usual fine self as the complex, somewhat bemused outlaw. Affleck steals this picture from him, though. His Robert Ford is such a bum that he almost put me in mind of a wimpier Bruce Dern. He dominates this picture and it’s to his credit that you leave the viewing thinking about Ford – not Jesse James.

There’s a fine supporting cast here, too, although they aren’t given much to do. Sam Shepard gets off a few good lines as Jesse’s brother Frank, but Mary-Louise Parker, one of the finest actors of her generation, is given precious little material in her role as Jesse’s wife Zee. One suspects the scream she lets out when Jesse meets his fate comes more from frustration over the emptiness of her part than anything relating to the narrative.

This film says something about the price of fame, about America’s love affair with the western outlaw, about the motivations that lead to betrayal. That it remains somewhat ambiguous is my overall problem with the modern western. You don’t have to hit us over the head. But just tell the darn story.

Western buffs should see this film if for no other reason than the cinematic beauty of western Canada. Brad Pitt fans will find much here to love.

Forgive me, though, if I go watch "The Shootist" again for the 100th time. It just ain’t the same anymore.

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is now available on DVD.

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