Reviews Too Late: The Assassination of Jesse James

by wjw on June 29, 2009

This may be one of a very few films ever to be doomed by excessive devotion to its literary source material. (Watchmen might be another.) The full title, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, isn’t the sort of name that Hollywood gives to its films: it’s taken from the the Ron Hansen novel upon which the film is based.

I read the novel when it came out and it’s terrific. Y’all should go out and read it right now.

Reading the novel will take a couple hours out of your life, and you’ll have a good time. Watching the film will take two and a half hours, and it will be excruciating. The movie is like a much, much slower version of the book. About 45 minutes of the screen time is action, and the rest is composed of long, brooding, largely motionless shots of Western beauty, plus chunks of narration taken directly from the novel.

I’m completely down with the filmmakers being captivated by Ron Hansen’s prose, but the voice-over narrative mostly tells us stuff that should, by all rights, have been dramatized. This is, after all, supposed to be a drama, not an audio book. The narratives make the movie seem even slower than it is; dramatizing the same scenes would make the movie seem to go faster even if they took up more screen time.

In a rather long narrative opening, the narrator/Hansen tells us a lot about Jesse James, including the fact that he had an eye condition that caused him to blink a lot. Someone should have read this to the director and/or star, because Brad Pitt, who plays Jesse, blinks maybe half a dozen times in the whole movie, and the rest of the time favors us with long, long, long intense blue-eyed stares.

The film also fails to tell us about a crucial plot point: the $5000 reward that the governor of Missouri had offered for Jesse’s capture. This motivates much of the action, and provides the motive for Jesse to liquidate all his former associates before they can turn him in. A reward is mentioned at various points: we don’t know how much the reward is, or that the $5000 would be a fortune on the frontier.

The cast is awesomely wonderful: besides Pitt as Jesse, we’ve got Sam Shepherd as Frank James and Casey Affleck, Ben’s little brother, as Bob Ford. The minor roles are all extremely well played. Mary Louise Parker is wasted as Jesse’s wife, Zee, who is absent for most of the movie, and silent for much of the rest.

But it’s still maybe the slowest Western of all time. Read the novel instead. Here’s how it starts:

He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t even know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.

Ian McDowell June 29, 2009 at 4:59 pm

That's a terrific beginning. I'll have to track the book down now.

I've seen most of the film cable and have to admit that I enjoyed APPALOOSA (the other Western that came out that year) more, despite its being less serious and more conventional (my problems with ASSASSINATION weren't, as you state, in its ambitions but the exectution thereof).

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