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The Assassination of Jesse James

Writer-director Andrew Dominik begins his meditation on the outlaw on an interesting note. There's an initial sense of poetry as a narrator paints a portrait of James (played by an initially golden Brad Pitt) against a backdrop of beautiful shots of the old west. The images are soft and out of focus on the periphery of the frame as if to warn us that what we are about to see is not a clear-sighted recounting of the facts but rather something filtered through memory or time. In these initial moments, there's even a hint of the kind of poetry that graced Terence Malick's Days of Heaven. Unfortunately, that suggestion quickly fades as the opening lyricism grows blandly repetitive and wearisome.

The main problem of many is that writer-director Andrew Dominik doesn't know if he wants to deflate the outlaw myth or embellish it. Brad Pitt turns Jesse into an old west icon burdened by celebrity and a weighty sense of fate. Maybe Dominik thought that the casting of real life celebrity Pitt was just perfect under these circumstances. And there is an element of interest in this interpretation. Unfortunately Dominik doesn't really do much with it.

Casey Affleck as Ford... Just shoot him and get it over with, please. (WB)

Ford (played by a painfully subdued Casey Affleck) seems starstruck by James at first, wanting to join the gang and prove what an asset he could be. He's rebuked by Frank James (Sam Shepherd in an all too brief appearance), who sees Ford for the wannabe-outlaw that he is. Jesse, however, is willing to bring Ford into the fold, maybe he likes the adoration. But when things don't go quite how Ford had hoped, Ford turns into what may be one of the first celebrity stalkers, following James around constantly and looking for an opportunity to grab the spotlight by killing the legendary figure.

Since James' murder by Ford's hand should come as no surprise to anyone who's bothered to read the film's full title, I'm not spoiling anything by talking about his death. The assassination scene sums up the problems the film has as a whole: It's painfully drawn out with the characters seeming to move in slow motion so we can appreciate the portentous weight of every little gesture. This scene alone felt like it went on for hours, but then Dominik forces us to see it re-enacted repeatedly as Ford attempts to milk his fame for all it's worth by doing a stage version of the murder.

Dominik (a New Zealand filmmaker whose first effort was a biography of another outlaw, Mark "Chopper" Read) assembles a talented team. The Coen's cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand to make the old west glow with sad beauty (but a little too much Vaseline around the edge of the frame); Australia's Nick Cave provides the melancholy score; and Gus Van Sant's frequent editor Curtiss Clayton seems to have been hired NOT to cut the film. These talented people fail to make Jesse James click as a film. Elements within the film fight with each other as Dominik tries to both build the myth and tear it down.

The James Gang (Warner Brothers)

The film has scooped up an award for Pitt from the Venice Film Festival, but maybe the judges, like Ford, were just awed by his golden celebrity. But Pitt's performance does little to enthrall. He's not quite the beautiful Greta Garbo-esque blank canvas onto which we can read anything, but that might have been appropriate for this film since Dominik can't seem to decide if we're meant to like or hate James. Affleck's Ford is a character that we can decisively dislike if only for his whiny tone and slowness to think and act.

In addition to Venice kudos, The Assassination of Jesse James has been racking up praise from some critics. Every year there's always a film that I call a "head scratcher" because I'm left scratching my head wondering if those who are heaping praise on it saw the same movie as me. I felt the same way about Chicago and A Beautiful Mind, both of which won Oscars for Best Picture. With that in mind, maybe Dominik should be reserving his tux for Oscar night. But for me, this film lost its way after about a half hour or so of promising narrative.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references) clocks in at nearly three hours. By the second hour, you'll be begging for Ford to shoot you. If you want a decidedly romanticized James, go see Tyrone Power in Jesse James; if you want a little more grit, check out Walter Hill's The Long Riders , in which four sets of real brothers (Keaches, Caradines, Quaids and Guests) played the real outlaw brothers (James, Youngers, Millers and Fords).

Companion viewing: Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940), The True Story of Jesse James (Nicholas Ray), The Long Riders , The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (directed by Philip Kaufman); and for novelty you can try and find the silent films Jesse James Under the Black Flag and Jesse James as the Outlaw in which James' own son played him

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