Observations on "The Assassination of Jesse James"

It would be unfair, as someone who proclaims himself to be a professional movie critic, to review an unfinished movie, especially being aware the cut I saw was one at least three being tested, and from all indication the shortest of the various cuts. Thus, I offer these comments about a film that had been riding high on my radar since it was first announced, and one that, even in this possibly truncated version (if one can indeed call a 140 minute film “truncated”), will likely be atop my personal list of The Best Films of the Year when it is released.

Because I aim to have our weekly Early Report be the most comprehensive summary of upcoming releases, I employ many a way to track the hundreds of films which are in various forms of development, production and post-production, including test screenings. Not that I had even been to one in many years. So when I received an invitation to a screening of Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” I knew I had to take the chance of getting caught (and possibly being forever ostracized) by Warners operatives. Alas, no such slight occurred. I did not lie my way in. I did not wear any costume or disguise. I gave my true name when I called in my reservation, and I showed up at the appropriate place at the appropriate time, somewhat paranoid that I was being lulled into a false sense of security. As I often do in life, I put myself into a state of much ado about nothing, as I was checked in without incident and, along with my fellow screenees, eventually allowed to enter the theatre.

As I sat there, reading my book (Marshall Fine’s excellent 2005 biography of John Cassavetes, which I only recently got around to buying and still haven’t finished six months later), waiting for the film to begin, I couldn’t help but notice Ridley Scott (one of my filmmaking heroes) enter the auditorium. As one of the producers of the film, he had every reason to be there, and I was instantly struck by the irony of the situation. Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Scott was a nascent filmmaker who had just completed a unique and singular genre-busting work, and had gone through the same test screening process with the same distributor (although with all the turnovers at the top of the studios, it is unlikely he was dealing with anyone this day he dealt with then). “Blade Runner” was a tough sell to the public in 1982, as “Jesse James” will undoubtedly be in 2007, with one of the major stars of the day playing a familiar yet not quite recognizable archetype. Both films feature narration to help the story along and are quite a tough nut to crack if you’re not paying total attention, words I am certain the studio would never want to hear, even though the had to know exactly what they were getting in to when they greenlit this movie.

The name above the title might belong to Brad Pitt, and he does turn in the best performance of his career since “12 Monkeys,” but this is not his film. Remember, the full title of the film includes a second character, and it is Casey Affleck, as Robert Ford, who owns the screen by the time the film is over. His performance is so exceptional and so finely nuanced, many will start to think of Ben second when they think of an acting Affleck. While flashes of brilliance have been seen in Casey’s performances to date, nothing will prepare you for the powerhouse tour-de-force he gives here. Far too long, he’s been hindered with the “Ben’s brother” mark, and its about time he had the chance to smash that discourteous title. We have yet to see Ben pull of this kind of layered, nuanced performance. There are also exceptional performances from Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard (in an all-too-brief appearance as Frank James), Paul Schneider and Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife Zerelda, practically the only female in the film.

One of the many things I love about this movie is also the one thing that has me the most torn about it, and that is Roger Deakins and the art of cinematography. To say Deakins has been one of the best shooters in the past twenty years is to state the obvious. However, with the mass acceptance of CG effects and the digital intermediary process, one can no longer be sure if those amazing vistas and awe-inspiring sunsets are the work of a true master or some geek at a workstation. Because this is Roger Deakins we are talking about, I only have the slightest of doubts that the entire look of the film wasn’t completely mapped out by the director and the cinematographer and shot as it was meant to be seen. For example, there is a scene early in the film, during a James Gang train robbery, where Jesse comes out of hiding in the woods after the train has been stopped, emerging through a thick cloud of steam, lid only by the pale moonlight. Of course, it wasn’t really the moon but likely a 10K light held high above the tree line by some kind of crane apparatus, but I suspect (hope against hope) that was the only artificial part of that shot. And it really is a beautiful shot, so striking in its immaculate simplicity, just a man and a train and an amazing shadow cast between the moon and the steam. There’s also something Deakins and Dominik do from time to time, an irising of the lens during a crucial changeover between scenes, which adds so much dramatic effect without much hassle. At first, these changeovers occur with some perfunctory but interesting narration (because there were no end credits, I do not know offhand who the narrator was, suffice to say that it wasn’t the great Sam Elliott, and whomever it was found the perfect note to deliver his information despite not being Sam Elliott), but after just a few instances, one has been trained to know what these iris flares mean, and one can accept them sans explanation.

And thus is the beauty of Dominik’s film.

”The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” doesn’t try to reinvent the western, so much as bring back to the same kind of timelessness which have made “The Searchers” or “The Wild Bunch” or the westerns of Clint Eastwood favorites for generations. Twenty years on, “Young Guns” feels like even more like the tired ‘80s movie we knew it was when it was first released. Twenty years from now, this film will not be a victim of its time. It will be still be watched and benefit from the attempt to not chase what is hip or hot today.

No matter what shape the final film takes, I do not believe it could be much different than the screening I saw. If it’s shorter (which hopefully it is not), there is a good chance Dominik will be able to retain most of the even flow without too much compromise. If it’s longer (which hopefully it is), there is a good chance the story and the characters will be even richer. Maybe we’ll even get to see more of Zooey Deschanel, who (despite her current second billing status on the IMDb, she does not appear until the final five minutes of the movie) could use a bit more exposure in a first-rate film instead of the gaggle of pretentious indie flicks she’s been doing lately. It has been my belief that a film will be seen by as many people as are interested in the film. Star power can help get people into the theatre, as can a good director, but in the end, people go to the movies to see stories that interest them. The best marketing will never interest those who already had no interest in the film, and flooding the market with television ads will not help a film that already has high awareness. If this were my call, I would do what Fox Searchlight did with “Sideways” three years ago: play the film at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals, screen the film heavily with critics, open the film in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York a week after it plays NYFF, release slowly but surely throughout the winter and let the positive press and word of mouth drive the film. That would mean moving the film back yet another month, but that is the price one would need to pay.

No matter what shape the final film takes, I suspect it will be the best film the genre has seen since the days of Leone and Peckinpah. Yes, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is better than “Unforgiven.” Better than “Dances with Wolves.” Better than “Silverado” or “Wyatt Earp” or any other Western in the past thirty years. I cannot wait to see it again for the first time.

The Western is back. Don’t blow it again, Hollywood.