6 October 2007 | WriterDave
The Expectation of Applause
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a handsomely mounted, film-school like study of the last days of the infamous James' Gang by director Andrew Dominik. Growing up in awe of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) finally gets to live out his dream of living side by side with his idol when his brother, Charles (Sam Rockwell) joins the gang. Young Robert quickly learns that the exploits of the murderous train-robbers are far from the exciting flights of fancy he grew up reading about in newspapers and dime-store novels. A series of cowardly acts in the wake of double-crossings and humiliations ultimately lead to the titular event.
The style of the film is often visually arresting and downright disturbing, especially in the acts of violence, which leave the most gruesome parts slightly off camera, but are frequently shot and framed in such a way as to maximize shock value and leave an uncomfortable feeling of tension in the theater seats. Dominik sometimes relies too heavily on voice-over narration torn straight from the book upon which the film is based leaving us to assume that aside from dreadfully beautiful photography of passing clouds and desolate Midwestern landscapes, he wasn't always sure how he visually wanted to tell the story. This leads to a sometimes snails' pace as the plot unfolds, though the haunting Oscar-worthy cinematography from Roger Deakins and mesmerizing music score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis eventually get under your skin even as the hands of the clock seem to move slower as if stuck in a pretty photograph of a nightmare.
The acting in the film is superb from all involved. However, the performances often blur the line between caricatured scenery-chewing and emotional nuance (especially from Pitt and Rockwell). While there is some entertainment to be found in the lighter scenes of camaraderie amongst the gang members, the audience never really feels anything for the characters aside from sharing their sense of paranoia and fear knowing that around any corner someone will be betrayed and shot. The film also suffers from some scene stealing cameos from James Carville as the governor hell-bent on catching Jesse and the otherwise lovely Zooey Deschanel, who appears out of nowhere for a few moments about ten minutes after the film should have rightfully ended.
When the credits finally rolled, I wasn't sure what to make of the film. There's some unforgettable imagery (my personal favorite being the almost surreal depiction of the cloth-masked robbers waiting in the dark woods as the train comes roaring down the tracks), and many commendable artistic elements to be found in the film. If the idea was to leave the audience feeling the era showcased was a tension-riddled and violently lonely existence, then the film succeeded wonderfully. Those seeking a more pure entertainment will most assuredly be left stressed and stretched to their limits.