Critics have swooned over our Jesse and his chums, so to up the ante I went to see this during the afternoon while tired and recovering from a “couple” of drinks the night before. The last time I watched a film in this state was Lost in Translation, which succeeding in matching my soft-focussed, languid view of the world and had a similar effect as staring at a lava lamp for a few hours (having re-watched it when fresh and awake it soon transpired that the lava lamp would have more depth and less pretension.)
Anyway, this is the story of Jesse James, famous wild west train robber who was assassinated (oops - there’s a spoiler) by Robert Ford. The plot follows Jesse in his last year, and the ins and outs of his unstable relations with a bunch of his robbing friends, including Bob Ford. Although it may be dubbed a ‘western’, this is more a simmering character study, both on Jesse himself - a crumbling man made infamous by his exploits - and Robert Ford - the “coward” who helps Jesse kick the bucket.
Brad Pitt sails through as Jesse. It’s not particularly difficult for him to play a charismatic lead with a twitchy temper, and though he does the job well, he fades into the background when Casey Affleck appears as Ford. Creepy, vulnerable, desperate and greedy, Affleck gives several shades to Ford, promoting sympathy and revulsion all at the same time. If I was big bro Ben I’d probably be jealous, although Casey has slightly weird teeth. There’s something for you to cling on to, Ben.
The film is directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous film is the superb Chopper, which regular readers with massive brains may remember managed to encroach on to the Little Fish review last year (because Chopper wowed and Little Fish sunk). Dominik chooses a bit of weird way to go about things, though, starting the film with gorgeous cinematography, moody lighting, framing each shot carefully, having Jesse stand with coat billowing in reflected steam during a train robbery scene full of style and danger. Great. But as the film moves on such devices are completely forgotten about, like all the great ideas ran out, or Dominik got too involved with characters and less involved with how he was showing the story.
A healthy mix of the two styles may have made the film feel more balanced, instead of a slightly disjointed feel that confused the direction of the plot. What is this film about? Jesse James? Robert Ford? The complex interaction between the whole gang and resulting mistrust and backstabbing? The odd effect of fame? Perhaps a second watch with a clear head might make things a bit more focussed, but for now it doesn’t feel completely cohesive.
However, the presence of Affleck and to a lesser extent Pitt, the periods of more inventive direction, and the strength of the story itself all mean this is still a rewarding film with plenty to ponder, especially the bizarre way a murdering thief is heralded as an American “hero”. Perhaps not as super as expected, but still worthy of more than a banal recommendation, Jesse James gets a CF2. Not long left in the year, and not one single CF5-rated film. Poor show, 2007. Poor show.