"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: Four stars (R)
Gone Baby Gone: Four stars (R)
I hadn’t planned to write about two films in the feature space this week. I intended to focus solely on Gone Baby Gone, a striking downbeat crime story set in the working-class Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. But I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford over the weekend and damned if it doesn’t deserve extra attention as well. Both films have some thematic elements in common, but Gone Baby Gone will likely reach a wider audience than Jesse James because its 115 minute running time is less daunting than Jesse’s 160 minutes. Both pictures also star Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother, so let’s just call this a Casey Affleck film festival and look at the individual offerings.
First, let me assure you that, though the running time of Jesse James sounds intimidating, the movie doesn’t feel long. Mostly... After the screening at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema, Ryan — a staff member and astute film aficionado, opined that the actions that followed the film’s title event did not warrant the time given them, adding that his complaint did not significantly affect his appreciation of the film.
Aside from agreeing with Ryan’s observation, there’s not much I didn’t like about the movie. Most of the time, when filmmakers portray western icons, they either romanticize the characters or go overboard stripping away the gloss of pop history. Andrew Dominik’s film, based on the novel by Ron Hansen, does neither. As Jesse James, Brad Pitt is pretty as all get out, of course, but his character is cryptic in an interesting way. Jesse is in decline, near the end of his career, and as I studied his face I wondered if I was watching a cagey mastermind still playing the game, a mentally battered thief whose inscrutable glances and smiles reflect blankness braced by sharp reflexes, or some combination of the two. Pitt’s Jesse is interesting, scary and sad, but never glamorous.
Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford is just as fascinating. Is he simply a scrappy hero worshiper or is there some sort of Mark David Chapman “I want to be you but you keep getting in the way” stalker thing in play? Affleck is very good in the role, as are the other cast members, including Sam Shepard as Frank James, Sam Rockwell as Robert’s brother Charley and especially Paul Schneider — one of the most charismatic actors working today — as gang member Dick Liddil.
I could go on about the film — I want to go on — but it would be wrong to further short shrift Gone Baby Gone. Ben Affleck directs the mystery (he also co-wrote the screenplay) and he has crafted a smart, melancholy tale of alliances, betrayals and ethical dilemmas built around the disappearance of a four-year-old girl. Casey Affleck is excellent as a baby-faced private investigator drawn into the case with his professional and romantic partner (Michelle Monaghan).
Can’t say more about the plot, but I can say that the movie grabs you and holds you all the way through. The gritty neighborhood setting is dead-on, as are the performances. And after the movie, you can argue with your companions about which character was right in Gone Baby Gone’s climactic confrontation. I love when movies give you something to chew on.