If nothing else, let the sharing of this today be a reminder that Roger Deakins doesn’t have an Academy Award yet.
The first twenty minutes or so of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford promises a magnificent film. Writer-director Andrew Dominik begins his second feature with the last train robbery of the James Gang, though it is an oddly cobbled together version of those legendary outlaws, populated by one-off hires from a local town. Dominik shows these miscreants bantering anxiously in their camp and the dialogue snaps with engrossing, smartly revelatory energy, especially when it’s coming from the mouth of Bob Ford. In a major step forward as an actor, Casey Affleck plays Ford with an anxious pushiness, a volatile vulnerability, a gleeful, tending aching for notoriety. Watching him try awkwardly to ingratiate himself with each of the James brothers makes for high comedy tinged by pathos.
Besides this, the beginning is especially notable for the sort of stunning images that are the aspirational dreams of every young filmmaker who’s genuflected before the projected loveliness of a Terrence Malick film. Dominik holds shots long enough to allow for ample savoring of their artful composition and richly realized cinematography (the Coen Brothers’ longtime director of photography, Roger Deakins, is the man behind the camera here). The film offers an ongoing invitation to get lost in the picturesque.
This mix of flinty, character-driven writing and pretension-skirting and photographic set pieces may not be truly sustainable for the full film. Dominik needs to get down to the business of telling the story of the final days of Jesse James, the ways in which his unpredictable paranoia and sudden bursts of cruelty impacted his relationships with these last few men who affiliated themselves with him and life of crime. There’s still room for the sort of grand imagery that fills the first portion of the film, but it shares flickering frames with the more conventional overall story. This isn’t especially problematic as Dominik shows a sure hand for balancing out the different elements, only lapsing when he tries to instill too much heavy import into certain moments, such as the scene that gives the film its title. Things are much better when Dominik allows the small details to make his points. No matter how much he tries to heighten the drama in the supposed “big” scenes, the greatest impact comes from just Jesse gently calming his horse after committing a murderous act or roughly, relentlessly interrogating an innocent farm boy.
Brad Pitt does solid work as Jesse, although his fame has reached the point where, no matter how much he wants to immerse himself in character work, it’s exceedingly hard for him to disappear into a role. He could simply be suffering in comparison, though, as the film is filled with superior performances. Besides Affleck, Sam Shepherd instills an inspired craggy crankiness to Frank James, Sam Rockwell deploys his usual wild inventiveness as Charley Ford and noted “Deadwood” double-dipper Garret Dillahunt plays the slow-witted reticence of a another gang member to perfection. Best of the lot is Paul Schneider as the verbose Dick Liddil, perhaps the one person in the crew who is shrewd enough to fully understand what he’s gotten himself into.
Make no mistake, Jesse James is long and sometimes challenging, but, at its best, Dominik’s film has the stately power of an twilight elegy.