Lethargy drains a beautiful 'Jesse James'

October 19, 2007 

At one point in the beautifully filmed and soddenly paced "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" — even the title very nearly requires an intermission — the narrator describes the title character as "merry, moody, fey and unpredictable."

Fey. Isn’t that a great word? It means whimsical, strange, otherworldly. For Brad Pitt, who plays the famed outlaw, it's an apt way to describe his performance. He plays Jesse James not as mere man but as a rough-hewn myth.

This isn't the Jesse James you'd likely meet if you were to step into a time machine and encounter the real guy. It's a distillation of history's Jesse James: the towering figure played not so much as larger-than-life hero but more an intricate bundle of tics, quirks, shadowy sensibilities, jovial interludes and daredevil leaps from sullen cruelty to touching regard.

It's easy to see, in fact, why Pitt took this role: It's meaty and multidimensional, yet it can be played with reserve and nuance.

Andrew Dominik's dark and uncomfortable film is not a shoot-'em-up action flick nor a rousing twist on the Western genre. Rather, it is an intense psychological experience.

We're talking about a notorious killer, after all, one who butchered innocent people with little regard for human life. Although society has melded his image into that of a cheery outlaw, we aren't talking about someone who's a poster child for clean mental health.

The film is based on Ron Hansen's novel, and it certainly has the dense feel of intriguing but complex source material. It opens in the waning days of James' career. All the notorious James brothers are dead except Jesse and Frank (Sam Shepard), and the pair has turned to freelance misfits and local thieves to round out their gang.

One of those men is Bob Ford (a finely tuned Casey Affleck in a soft and pasty performance), whose brother, Charley (a likewise impressive Sam Rockwell), is one of Jesse James' associates. The socially awkward Bob has idolized the outlaw since youth, and he dreams of joining his select circle of followers.

The film is really Bob's story as his life drifts in and out of Jesse James' orbit. There's a feeling like that of a noose tightening as we trudge toward the inevitable conclusion and see a nerve-wracked Bob and his brother, watched closely by the suspicious outlaw, prepare to ride as sidekicks during yet another a bank robbery.

Visually, the film is often stunning, with long, lingering shots of gorgeous Western tableaus shot in stodgy sepia tones. Dominik is enamored of flashback shots with a sharp focus surrounded by a halo of blur, which suggests even more that what we're witnessing has been distilled and reworked by the lens of history and celebrity.

But there's a dreary, despondent -- almost inert at times -- feel to "Jesse James." As a character study, Pitt is a triumph. But a bleached-out dreariness and lethargic pace drains this challenging film of much of its impact.

The reporter can be reached at dmunro@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6373. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com/donald.

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