Do me a favor and watch this trailer for the film in question. Looks great, right? At the 1:00 mark, a jangling, fast-paced guitar song starts, and at 1:58, it hits you with a full fledged Things Spiraling Out of Control Montage. Who wouldn't be excited about that film?
Well, it takes about an hour and a half into The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, Esquire A.S.C. to even approach something like the energy of that trailer, and it's hard pressed to maintain it for more than a few minutes at a time. It's simply too long, and I suppose that my pleasure in making jokes at the expense of the elongated title should have clued me in.
And it's ultimately frustrating, because the rest of the film is outstanding: Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt both excellently play two different types of crazy, my man Sam Rockwell breezes his way into paranoid madness (plus he gets "and Sam Rockwell" style credit recognition. Damn straight), and even James Carville joins a cast of character actors as various outlaws. Only Mary Louise Parker goes to waste in a bit part as Jesse James' wife- even her line in the trailer gets cut. It's astounding that this movie has any deleted scenes.
The problem is that unlike the similarly long American Gangster, this film has a simple plot: Affleck and Rockwell play young brothers recruited to run heists with Brad Pitt's psychopathic Jesse James. Affleck eventually shoots him in the back, due to circumstance, delusions of grandeur, and an intense affection that turns to something like hatred for the outlaw.
There are plenty of not terribly necessary subplots to pass the time, as well as a narrator who occasionally helps out with historical fact, but sometimes plods the film down by explaining character motivations. But it's mostly just smoky western landscapes and people staring at one another- it's very beautifully shot and composed, but it takes too long to mean anything.
A big misstep is assuming that the audience will like Pitt in the film as much as they do in real life, and in something that coasts on charisma like the Ocean's Eleven series you can get away with that. But despite playing nice with his family, he's nothing but a killer and a madman, and the story and the camera linger on him longer than they should.
Ironically, the story moves quickly and becomes much more compelling after the titular assassination happens, as it examines the way America makes legends of bad, bad people, and the fleeting nature of Robert Ford's fame for shooting that legend. It's the opposite problem that Nicole and I had with Lust, Caution- that movie was dramatic enough in the early going, but all built up to nothing. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is too plodding before it reaches a dramatic finale.
It's all the more frustrating that this movie was just okay, because with a half decent editing job it could be transcendent.
When to See It: On DVD