Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is a deliberately paced, stunningly visualized, and emotionally charged exploration of the early development of mass media celebrity in America. The film riveted my attention for two hours and 40 minutes, and has remained on my mind for several days after my viewing. Although centered on one of the iconic legends of the Old West, it is far beyond an updated reincarnation of the Western. It is an epic allegory about the development of the American cult of celebrity and the effects of this obsession on the individuals caught in its web.
Visually, the film soars beyond anything that has hit the screen since Conrad Hall's final masterpiece with Road to Perdition. Roger Deakins, the cinematography genius behind The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun, and all the Cohen brothers" films since The Hudsucker Proxy, surpasses his best work. He pulls out all the stops hereintricately orchestrated changes in focus, richly textured colors, dazzling use of light sources, careful manipulations of time, powerfully significant fade-ins and fade-outs, and shots through rain, snow, and rippled old glassto communicate the story. Deakins' contribution stands out in the railroad train robbery sequence at the beginning of the film. Clearly defined, flickering light sources and deep black shadows create a dazzling, nightmarish vision that haunts the rest of the film. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission.
The richly textured, historically precise visual aspects of the film bring to mind Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven and Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller. However, instead of the understated, "realistic" performances featured in those films, The Assassination of Jesse James
showcases powerful, yet still realistic performances by an outstanding ensemble cast.
Sam Rockwell, as the not-too-bright but well-meaning Charley Ford, and Mary-Louise Parker, as Jesse's loving wife, stand out. Yet the film belongs to the two titular leads, both of whom deliver the performances of their careers and create characters filled with disturbing contradictions. Brad Pitt's Jesse James is alternately pitiable and terrifyingan affectionate, loving father, an old-before-his-time sage, an adventurous daredevil, an unrepentant bad boy, and a vicious sociopath. Casey Affleck's Robin Ford is a complex, repellent, and tragic character who challenges the audience's complicity in the undercurrents of the film.
All in all, this is a great filmnot for those seeking the simple pleasures of instant gratification. But definitely worth the attention of those who still believe that movies are an art form.