There’s a good movie somewhere inside the nearly three-hour behemoth that is “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Unfortunately, most won’t have the patience to find it.
Let’s get this out of the way: “Assassination” is beautifully made, and every scene is rich and exquisitely detailed. In terms of framing and lighting and all that crap, it’s amazing. OK, let’s continue.
You would think an account of the death of the greatest train robber of the Old West would be interesting, exciting, revealing – pick a positive adjective. Instead, what we have is an exercise in dull ambience with maybe four or five gunshots piercing the deafening silence.
James (Brad Pitt) is an outlaw on the edge of retirement; Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, “Ocean’s Thirteen”) is his wannabe tag-a-long who even tries to tilt his hat just like his idol. After one final train robbery, James proceeds to wander around Missouri, growing increasingly paranoid and distrustful of everyone. Ford’s views of his mentor rapidly start to change when he begins to fear for his own life. Unless you accidentally wandered into the theater without reading the marquee, you know what’s going to happen.
The rising tension in “Assassination” is painful. You know what’s coming, you know when it’s going to happen, but it just takes so long to get there. In every scene in between you’re waiting for James to snap and shoot someone in the face, but that moment never comes. “Assassination” does do a good job of making you feel uncomfortable, but in terms of storytelling, it’s just poorly executed.
Pitt’s James acts like a manic-depressive, crying after roughing up a child in one scene and then laughing hysterically after nearly slitting someone’s throat a short while later. Pitt probably is the highlight of the film, but don’t expect any Oscar gold coming his way. He could have been honored if the film was actually, you know, good.
Affleck poses a bit of a mystery in his role as Robert Ford. There’s a great deal of homoeroticism in his relationship with James, followed by jealousy, insanity and a few times where he just appears to be mentally challenged. It may be the way the character was written, or it could be Affleck’s acting, but we might have to wait until his upcoming performance in “Gone Baby Gone” to sort that question out.
The dynamic between the two should be the main focus of the movie, but it often drifts to people we don’t really care about. Cousin, brothers and wives cloud the vision of the film (as well as adding that extra unnecessary hour), although they do give James a wider selection of people to stare at intensely.
The first 10 minutes of the final train robbery are incredibly well executed, as are the last 20 when James is actually killed and Ford gains celebrity status. Bits and pieces inside the film have the makings of greatness, but there’s just so much droning silence in between that it’s impossible for them to come together. “Assassination” is a great movie that’s been watered down to be mediocre, a true waste of potential, and unfortunately, time as well.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars