To draw back the curtain of myth while simultaneously exploiting its allure, mining it for its commentary on what it says about our participation in myth-building: this is something a great western can do beautifully. Westerns have a special ability to be romantic and iconoclastic at once. Sam Peckinpah pulled off this particular feat at least three times, though in doing so, he seems to have helped kill off the genre for nearly everyone trying to follow his example.
Even ardent fans can probably count on their digits the number of great westerns to have appeared on the frontier since those heady 1970s. Maybe that’s why Andrew Dominik’s sophomore feature seems so intent on invoking that period in his grandiose adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford –though it would surely have benefited from a more modest approach. Dominik’s rustling prairies and half-mumbled reveries owe a debt to Terrence Malick that simply can’t be paid through these protracted misadventures into formal fidgeting and half-digested philosophy.
I figure I’m actually the target audience for The Assassination. A story about a strange kid strangely obsessed with his hero, gradually coming to a place where he eclipses him by consuming him, a story loosely told in painterly Albertan landscapes and enigmatically detailed scenes of stark, awkward violence –I generally gobble this stuff up. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s shot by Roger Deakins and scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. (Cave even appears in the film, singing the same tune as that hapless minstrel in Sam Fuller's I Shot Jesse James, a movie that's pretty much the exact opposite of The Assassination in every way imaginable.) Yet maybe its because the film has so much going for it that it continually annoyed me so. There’s such poetry inherent in the material, such talent involved, that it should have been much better.
The film’s voice-over is risibly redundant, frequently telling us precisely what the actors are doing on screen, albeit in the purple prose of antiquated literature. Every time Dominik ended another self-consciously pretty scene with another fade to black, only to open on another very pretty scene with Vaseline around the edge of the lens and yet more voice-over, I think I actually slapped my head in wonder that someone could work so hard to kill the momentum of a picture.
Pretty too is Brad Pitt as James, a not-too present presence who sort of pops up now and then to look groomed and tormented or bully somebody around. At one point he sadistically beats a little boy and then cries afterwards. More interesting is Casey Affleck’s Ford, who at least is effortlessly convincing as a twerp. There’s a memorable, tremendously creepy moment where Ford lists all of the things he believes he has in common with James. But the film’s most appealing performance is arguably that of Paul Schneider, whose tenure with David Gordon Green has given him the chops to give a genuinely rascally reading of a line like “They say when a woman’s on fire you’re supposed to roll her around on the ground and cover her up with your body!”
There are, to be sure, certain moments and ideas in The Assassination I won’t forget for some time. The thing is, rather than making me want to go back and see the movie again, almost every one of them make me want to just read Hansen’s book.