Idol Chatter

JesseJames070924.jpgIt’s official! Summer is over and Hollywood is now rolling out its what-the-heck-do-we-do-with-these pet projects as images of gold-plated awards and acceptance speeches dance in their heads. The proof, in this case, is in the Pitt pudding, Brad’s latest film, which he produces and stars: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
This is an awards-season release not because it’s a self-indulgent piece of historical fiction, though it is adapted from Ron Hansen’s well-researched novel of the same name; rather, this film is a competent, probing, lyrical work that may never find its audience because it’s very low on dusty, action-packed “stick ’em up!” sequences and very high on extended reaction shots and psychological soul-searching. This is simply not a guy’s guy movie, unless the guys in question are Niles and Frasier Crane.
“The Assassination of Jesse James…” is a no-frills film as barren and humorless as the landscape it captures, with little use of music, matte shots… or editing. Clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, at times the movie feels as long as its title.

What we see on the screen, however, is a speculative movie about the infamous outlaw/hero Jesse James, a man at odds with his own mythological image, and Robert Ford, not much more than a boy, desperate to create his own. Can the relationship between idol and idolater ever be a rewarding one for either? Just where does reality end and mythology begin?
Brad Pitt as Jesse James is alternately torn between pride in his larger-than-life image fabricated by the newspaper editors and dime-store novels of his day and his soul’s selfless desire to set the record straight and be known and respected (or not) for his actual accomplishments and, presumably, faults. Pitt is Jesse James onscreen, at times remorseful and contemplative, at times wild-eyed and unpredictable. Yet he is always emotionally elusive enough that the mystique left behind feels befitting of such a legend.
Robert Ford, a Jesse James hero-worshipper, wonderfully played by Casey Affleck–who truly carries this film–is part sycophant and part restless dreamer anxious to define himself (and be defined) by his hero’s shadow. When I found myself cringing at his character’s blatant onscreen gushing over Jesse, I was really cringing at my past hero-worship that ultimately ended in disillusionment. I knew where Robert Ford was headed before he did.
As Jesse says to him in the film, “You wanna be like me? Or you wanna be me?” It’s a question we’ve each had to face as we grew up in our parents’ shadow only to chase after other idols until we found what we were looking for within ourselves. (Or not.)
What we finally discover is that Robert Ford is no more a coward than Jesse James is an outlaw. Life is never that cut-and-dried, and human beings can never be summed up in just one word. Neither can this film.
See this film for its beautiful, stark cinematography, its stunning and poetic train robbery sequence, its musical use of “Old West” vernacular, and for the risks the filmmakers took that are rarely seen in movies with this level of star power. Don’t see it for the underused Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel–or if your blood sugar is low.
— By Todd Havens

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