Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Review of the Film with the Longest Title in the History of Cinema by the Critic Lisa Draski

I am only typing the full name of this film once: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. There. Hereafter, it shall only be known as Assassination, which itself doesn't exactly roll over the fingertips, but it's better than the alternative. I've never been a big fan of westerns, but I think the genre has been wonderfully reinvented lately. Most notably, the Coens did it with No Country for Old Men, and Paul Thomas Anderson did it with There Will Be Blood. With Assassination, Andrew Dominik, in only his second directorial effort, has earned his place on that esteemed list. That's pretty gosh dang-tootin' impressive.

I love the new western, and I love where these people are taking it. They're less about showdowns at high noon and constant gunplay and more about deep internal conflicts, psychological drama, and meticulous character development. I didn't think I'd like Assassination at all, but it was a must-see just because of all the buzz. It's a long film. I mean, it's really long. And I think it does lag occasionally, mostly in the beginning, but it's a sprawling story that sort of quietly and confidently unravels over almost 2 hours and 45 minutes. It's a sprawling story to match the heavenly sprawling cinematography by the incomparable Roger Deakins. I believe that Dominik is in total control of the story at every second. I do think it's a tad boring at points, and maybe it could have been trimmed a little, but I think I might appreciate it more if I watch it again. Then again, it might still be a little boring. The plot also lost me sometimes. I was a bit hazy on the details and motivations every now and then. Plus, all of the supporting characters seemed to blend together, and when they'd mention someone, I'd think, "Who the heck is that?" That tends to happen to me with these testosterone fests.

Other than that, I can't find many flaws with this film, and those flaws are so minimal compared to the greatness overall that I can easily forgive them. The script is impeccable. It's based on a book by Ron Hansen and written for the screen by Dominik, and there are moments when it sounds like poetry. I was hypnotized by the words, as well as the breathtaking images. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in film history. No question about it. I can't believe he's never won an Oscar. He's a double nominee this year for this and No Country for Old Men. The cinematography is so different in them, too, even though they're both westerns. He should get an Oscar just for being so diverse. His work is fantastic in both, but Assassination is better. It's astonishing. I haven't seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in a long time, and I still think Janusz Kaminski's work in that can't be beat, but Deakins' cinematography in Assassination rivals Kaminski's for the best of the year. It might even be better, but I'd have to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly again to make that decision. Deakins captures every mood just right, and he's a master at hues (yellow-gold in candlelight, cool blue in the wintry landscape, blazing white in the hot sun). It's like he's rediscovering all the colors of the rainbow before our eyes. I heard someone say that each frame could be a painting because everything is so beautiful. I totally agree. It's a wonder to behold. Deakins is a true artist.

Of course, the visual style can't only be attributed to Deakins. Dominik has an incredible vision, and this is such a huge project to undertake. The scope is just mind-boggling. I really admire his finesse and expertise, and I think he's a formidable talent with lots more greatness to come. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is exquisite. It's powerful, memorable, and emotional. The Oscar nominees for Best Score this year are such a joke. Where is this on that list? It makes me so mad.

I didn't want to like Casey Affleck in this film. I actually didn't for quite awhile. He's an annoying weasel. But that's the character of Robert Ford, I said to myself. But no, it was more annoying that necessary. Plus, I didn't think he did anything special. It was very average for most of the film. There are some moments of brilliance, though, and there's a very discernible character arc that's pretty amazing when you really look at it. I was really blown away by certain scenes, but he's consistently excellent in the last half hour. Overall, I think he does deserve his Oscar nomination. He certainly doesn't deserve to win, and I know there are other people I'd rather put in his place. But if I'm looking at the situation as it is and not being able to change anything...yeah, he deserves it.

However, he's not in the right category. Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt have equal screen time, and they're both leads. Someone like Sam Rockwell would be a supporting character in this film. It's similar, but trickier, with No Country for Old Men. Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, and Javier Bardem are essentially all leads, but because there are three main characters and the screen time is pretty equally divided, they're all considered supporting. I suppose it must make sense somehow to the people running the awards, like maybe it's less confusing that way, or they're trying to distribute the wealth by placing people in categories in which they have better a better chance at winning, but after tons of scientific research, I have yet to discern any real rules or patterns. I don't get how their minds work.

I know how mine works, though. In my awards, I put all three of them in the supporting category. When it gets to three or more leads, it's really ambiguous. They're either all leads, or they're all supporting. It's almost too close to call with the lead versus supporting issue for this film, so it has to be up to personal interpretation. It's a tough one. I just think where one goes, the others should follow. I believe it's more of an ensemble, and it's sort of like they're playing three aspects of one person. They're very interconnected, but they rarely interact. So that's why I'm calling them supporting performances. "Supporting" doesn't mean that they're any less important or brilliant either (all three are geniuses) - it's just a technicality. If I HAD to pick a lead in No Country for Old Men, I think it would be Tommy Lee Jones, just because of what his role means to the story. Josh Brolin would be second, and Javier Bardem would be third (even though Javier is never third in my heart...dreamy sigh). But for Academy purposes, they're all supporting performances, and for once, the Academy and I seem to be in agreement. Anyway, I'm biased, and I want Javier Bardem to win, and he wouldn't stand a chance in the Best Actor race against Daniel Day-Lewis (in the actual awards and in my own version of the awards). He owns the supporting category, and I like it that way.

Sorry for the digression. Let's get back to the subject at hand. Casey Affleck is most definitely a lead, so it's not fair that he's in the supporting category. Regardless, it's not his fault. And I'm not going to let that detract from the merit of his performance, which I think is pretty great. The real crime here is how overlooked Brad Pitt has been for his performance as Jesse James. He's phenomenal! Of what I've seen of him, this is his best work. He's charming, ruthless, and utterly convincing as the notorious criminal tortured by his inner demons and past misdeeds. It's a subtle, heartbreaking, revelatory performance. If they (meaning "the man," or awards shows) want to call these supporting roles, Brad Pitt should be nominated instead of Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor. Actually, I'd wager that Brad Pitt deserves a Best Actor nomination more than George Clooney. But not more than Emile Hirsch. Ahh, awards season, thou dost mock me.

Assassination utilizes a lot of narration. I initially thought it was irritating, but it grew on me. By the end, I was eating it up. I also have to mention the homosexual vibe I got from the film. This might just be my over-analytical brain at work, but I've seen so many Production Code films and have been trained by the best to look for subtext everywhere. To me, there seems to be a sexual attraction between Jesse James and Robert Ford. I think it's a fundamental part of Ford's idolization of James, but I think James eventually reciprocates the feelings. Even if I'm just imagining it, which I don't think I am, I find it fascinating.

I find so much about Assassination fascinating. This is another film that makes me want to devour all the information out there about the subject, in this case Jesse James. I really love this film. It's funny, suspenseful, surprising (which is especially remarkable considering the title tells you what's going to happen), dramatic, and moving, not to mention an exhilarating piece of cinema. The last half hour is as good as anything I've ever seen. It's absolutely genius. I'll be haunted by that last half hour and especially by the final minutes, the very ending, of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for a long time. Hmm, I swore I wouldn't type out the whole title again. Oh well, it deserves it.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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