The Bad and the Ugly

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Just under three hours long, Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is an ostentatious exercise in gimmickry shooting for big and beautiful. Were it not so boring, it might best be labeled as obnoxious. It shouldn’t be this way, either, because it has a lot going for it on paper.

It’s a Brad Pitt vehicle, written and directed by an up-and-coming filmmaker (Dominik made the acclaimed “Chopper” in 2000), shot by the Coen brothers’ phenomenal cinematographer Roger Deakins and co-starring a who’s who of today’s almost-famous male actors (Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider). Unfortunately, only the B-list actors come off well, particularly Rockwell and Schneider, because every single trope employed by the film fails itself.

Voice-over is a routinely botched device, but this kind of literalization is unbelievably painful. The film opens describing Pitt’s Jesse James as a mysterious and powerful figure who can affect any situation despite not affecting any situation he’s shown acting within. This might be played as ironic in another film, but Dominik’s vision is only ever clouded by an earnest self-importance, which renders irony an impossibility. Were the cinematic blunders not so mind-boggling and blunt, the film’s shortcomings might have played light and parodic. Unfortunately, the film’s sobriety is suffocating, not enlightening. When the voice-over tells you James was concerned about being caught, you see Pitt mugging, searching the skyline for an answer, and you can tell he’s concerned about being caught. But just in case you couldn’t connect the dots, he has some dialogue to that effect as well.

Equally ineffective is the use of photography. Deakins has a gift for colors and composition, and both those aspects are sterling, but Dominik’s use of these images is nothing if not crude and confused. The film’s first shots, composing that opening sequence that details James’ effective (and affective) persona, are blurred around the edges of the frame. An initial read of the sequence tells us this is a memory, hazy images snatched from the ether of time. But midway through the montage the effect is dropped for a pure glamour shot of Pitt against a sunset. All sense of point of view evaporates. From here on, the blurred-edge framings are inserted at random, seemingly for no reason. Or the reason was lost in the editing, which only confuses the picture further.

Yet despite these erroneous moves, Pitt’s performance is good. The same cannot be said of Affleck as Ford. He starts the picture ingratiating his fellows onscreen and within minutes, the character’s faults become Affleck’s: nobody wants him around. Too bad there’s another two-and-a-half hours left. Rockwell plays Charlie Ford (brother of Robert) as well as can be expected given the narrow-minded screenplay, but Schneider’s performance as the resident wordsmith and ladies’ man Dick Liddle shines and offers an occasional chuckle. Too bad he gets shunted off screen rather early on, because, believe it or not, one performance does not a movie make. Especially in a relatively minor supporting role that occupies, maybe, a sixth of the film’s overlong running time.

The most curious thing about this film is that it has been edited, for two years now, into 34 different cuts, according to Entertainment Weekly. You have to think one of those versions could have been decent, or at least a little shorter. But no: I fear nothing could have averted this disaster. Not even more Paul Schneider.

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