December 22, 2007

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Here's my full-length review from The American Conservative:

While Hollywood is routinely scorned as a haven for illiterates, the modern movie industry's clean little secret is its inordinate veneration of writers. Increasingly, screenwriters are allowed to direct their own scripts, turning the Auteur Theory into a reality a half century after it was concocted by fantasizing Frenchmen ignorant of how Golden Age Hollywood had actually worked.

No movie illustrates film folks' infatuation with the written word more than the accurate, intelligent, and magnificent-looking, yet unentertaining art Western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," in which Brad Pitt plays the celebrated outlaw and Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) is the sniveling young protégé who shot him in the back of the head in 1882. Writer-director Andrew Dominik has filmed the most faithful adaptation imaginable of Ron Hansen's eloquent and obsessively researched but interminable 1983 historical novel. In Hansen's vast portrait of "the old, weird America," we learn, for example, that Jesse was 5'8" and 155 pounds while his battle-axe mother was 6'0" and 228 pounds.

Hansen is an admirable rarity among literary novelists. Besides attending Mass daily and playing golf weekly, he chooses inherently interesting subjects, such as Hitler's Niece. Hansen deserves a less reverent adapter than Dominik, who lifts vast slabs of voice-over narration straight from the book. Moreover, although "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a reasonable title for an ambitious novel, whose highbrow readers likely possess some vague awareness of what happened, but movie audiences can't be expected to know any history, so the title becomes a post-modernist gimmick that cheats the film of suspense.

Dominik's impressive but dolorous effort about the Missouri murderers seems modeled on Terrence Malick's remarkable 1973 movie "Badlands" recounting Charles Starkweather's nearby 1959 crime spree. Unfortunately, its dirge-like pacing makes it more reminiscent of Malick's excruciatingly slow 2005 version of the Pocahontas tale, "The New World."

Still, while Malick was stuck with the pseudo-star Colin Farrell to play Captain John Smith, Dominik at least has a genuine matinee idol to portray his American legend. I suspect that Brad Pitt's career goal has always been to become a respected character actor like, say, Paul Giamatti. But cruel nature has condemned him to be a famous leading man. So he's best cast as a glamorous psychopath, such as Tyler Durden in "Fight Club," Achilles in "Troy," and now as the intuitive, mercurial gunman Jesse James.

As Farrell's deservedly obscure 2001 Jesse James flick "American Outlaws" showed, Jesse and Frank James began as Confederate guerillas. Overall, our Civil War was fought as honorably as any war in history, but the worst exception was the vicious Iraq-like struggle in Missouri and Kansas. Their long career illustrates the often blurry lines between freedom fighters, terrorists, and gangsters. Resentful of peace, the James Brothers turned to robbing banks and trains. Jesse, an outspoken Democrat with a flair for publicity, spun their felonies as an anti-Republican and anti-corporate insurgency. Indeed, they flourished because they swam in a sea of disgruntled ex-Confederate farmers. They failed catastrophically only in 1876 when they tried to raid the bank in Northfield, Minnesota and were defeated by the staunchly Unionist armed citizenry.

After lying low for three years, Jesse returned to robbery in 1879. But the end of Reconstruction in 1877 had deprived him of his putative cause. To replace the brutal but formidable ex-guerillas, such as the three Youngers, who had once made up his war-forged band of brothers, he had to recruit an untrustworthy rabble of "petty thieves and country rubes" motivated only by money and juvenile dreams.

The new film begins in 1881 with 19-year-old Robert Ford insinuating himself into the gang around Jesse, whom he had idolized as a boy reading dime novels. But why murder unarmed train conductors when he could grab for the brass ring of celebrity by shooting Jesse himself?

Meanwhile, Jesse begins downsizing the gang, killing an accomplice he fears will betray him for the $10,000 price on his head. Who will shoot whom next? "The Assassination …" resembles the paranoid last 20 minutes of "Goodfellas" dragged out over 160 minutes.

A few days after Jesse's death, Oscar Wilde visited his house in St. Joseph, which was being pulled apart by "relic hunters." He marveled, "The Americans are certainly great hero worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes," which hasn't changed much in our age of The Sopranos and gangsta rap.

Rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

where is your review of 'the lives of others'? a search of this site does not turn it up.

Steve Sailer said...

Anonymous said...

Steve -- Brad Pitt is IMHO along with Johnny Depp one of the most limited actors to grace the screen. Unlike Depp, Pitt has pretensions of being a good actor. [Depp knows he can only play freaks and does so regularly.]

Pitt famously could not come up with an accent for Snatch and so mumbled to cover up his laziness. Akin to Nick Cage's bad accent in Captain Fonzarelli's Mandolin. Both had six months to come up with an accent.

The terrible, terrible weakness of most male actors is that they could not play ordinary men to save their lives. Bruce Willis *could* play them early in his career, not IMHO now. *Maybe* Mortenson could now. But most can't.

Mortenson is known as both uber-left even for Hollywood but also an all around nice guy and outside of Hollywood's publicity machine. So perhaps the lack of a huge social distance between ordinary people and Mortenson allows him to play more ordinary men.

How could Pitt ever play an average guy? He wouldn't know the first thing about him.