(On DVD, December 2015) I did not really expect to like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Westerns don’t grab me, and the film’s running time, as well as its reputation for being an art-house-friendly character study, didn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm. Some lovely shots aside, the first hour or two of the film doesn’t exactly work at dispelling that reluctance: The film drags on and on, with elliptical scenes that don’t really care about effectively moving the story forward with a minimum of fuss. The emphasis, at least early on, is on the complex relationship between a folk hero and an admiring young man; it’s about striking cinematography of western landscapes; it’s about deconstructing the myth of Jesse James, bit by bit. This being said, the film becomes quite a bit more interesting after the titular “assassination”: rather than cutting quickly to credits, the film details the hell-on-earth that Robert Ford created for himself, endlessly reliving the shooting through hundreds of theater recreations, being reviled for taking down a popular man and being unable to escape his notoriousness until his bitter end. It’s not quite the triumph that viewers may expect, and if it completely blurs the lines of what a satisfying third act is supposed to be, it was the section of the film that held my interest most closely. Brad Pitt is quite good as James, and so is Casey Affleck in a role not meant to be liked or admired. (Meanwhile a pre-stardom Jeremy Renner shows up, as well as political legend James Carville in an unexpected cameo.) Director Andrew Dominik still has much to learn about concision (His follow-up Killing Them Softly wasn’t entirely an improvement), but he’s obviously hitting the targets he’s aiming for, and as a result The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t quite as dull as a two-hours-and-a-half character study may suggest.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) While Killing Them Softly has the admirable ambition of using a crime story to tackle much-bigger social and economic themes, it looks as if, along the way, it has forgotten to entertain viewers on a minute-to-minute basis. Adapted from a seventies crime novel but updated to be set in the middle of fall 2008’s presidential/economic crisis, it’s a film that attempts to make parallels between low-level mob desperation and wider social problems. As such, it’s got a lot more ambition than most other crime thrillers out there. It all culminates into a tough but compelling final scene, in which America is unmasked as a business far more than a community, and in which getting paid is the ultimate arbitrator of fairness. Stylistically, Killing Them Softly has a few strong moments, perhaps the most being a slow-motion bullet execution. Alas; it’s so kinetically entertaining as to be atonal with the rest of the film, which takes forever to makes simple points and delights into long extended conversations in-between bursts of violence. Still, Brad Pitt is pretty good as a mob enforcer trying to keep his hands clean (it’s another reminder that he can act, and is willing to do so in low-budgeted features once in a while), while James Gandolfini has a one-scene role as a hit-man made ineffective by his own indulgences. Richard Jenkins also has an intriguing role as a corporate-minded mob middle-man in-between men of violence. Otherwise, though, Killing Them Softly‘s tepid rhythm kills most of its interest: Despite writer/director Andrew Dominik’s skills and lofty intent, the film feels too dull to benefit from its qualities.