Best western 

It’s funny. sometimes, the ones that end up being divisive.

Sure, some of ’em you see coming. Sicko. Live Free or Die Hard. Grindhouse. Still, every so often, I find myself wholly unprepared for how very passionately folks manage to disagree on art.

As the lights came up and the closing crawl began in our screening of Kiwi writer-director Andrew Dominik’s operatic soph effort The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I shone a supremely satisfied grin at my wife.

“That was fantastic,” I beamed. She nodded assent.

“Yep. Good.”

I glanced past her at a fellow critic, caught his attention.

“What’d you think?” quoth I, expectantly.

A shrug, then: “Was all right. A little long.”

I stood astounded.

“Wow. Really?”

Re-shrug.

A row ahead of us, a vaguely punkish teenager offered an aside to her companion:

“That was the most boring thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”

And there it was: The Gamut, clear and unblinking and immutable, laid top-to-bottom in the span of say, 12 seconds. It was reasonably stunning to watch, really. Four viewers, four sovereign and inalienably legitimate opinions.

Well, fuck The Gamut.

As westerns go, as films go — shoot, as expressive human achievements go — Jesse James is a magnificently wrought, absorbingly contemplative, virtually flawless masterpiece.

We join James near the end of his career: He’s an unassailable legend — the personality at the core of the cult — but a life of violence and extremes has finally caught up and left him a haunted, desolate man. Enter the titular Ford, 19-ish and a James devotee, to say the least; he’s got stats and stories piled high as any Jackie Robinson or Mean Joe Greene fan (or Brad Pitt fan, say), and has made joining the James Gang — and being near Jesse — his only ambition. As the alpha-outlaw descends further into darkness and paranoid despair, however, and as the youngster’s ideals are replaced, often painfully, by experience, their deepening relationship turns infinitely more complicated, and it becomes increasingly evident that no longer can Jesse simply toss Bob his game-worn jersey and send the tyke on his way.

The film is a Western, yes. More so, though, it is a probing dual character study, dependent more upon writing and nuanced performance than effusive bloodletting or spectacle. Dominik’s script, adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel, is elegant, assured, and lyrical, and flows naturally from the mouths of a watertight cast (Sam Rockwell is phenomenal, as anticipated, and it’s always nice to see Sam Shepard out and about) — most of all from the film’s entrancing anchors. Casey Affleck is effortlessly, unselfconsciously real as the awkward, trod-upon Ford, wide-eyed, wounded, angry and childlike. I’ve been a fan; this is clearly his best. Pitt, too, turns in what must be his most layered work to date — by turns menacing, harrowed, soulsick, and funny (often at once), his tortured James harbors enough baggage near the end to give ol’ Colonel Kurtz a run for his money.

At the same time, the film functions as a masterful, almost suffocating thriller. Moments and sequences of supremely atmospheric horror abound as the addled, murderous James stalks members of his team whom he suspects of treachery. Moreover, the minutes that lead up to Assassination’s final, eponymous act are soaked to the marrow in an exquisite tension that’s more than merely palpable; it’s cranked as tight as piano wire and nigh-unbearable — in the best of all possible ways.

Supporters have trotted out comparisons to McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Unforgiven; I’ll toss in The Godfather. A moody, gorgeous, towering feat, Jesse James is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, and is of that rare sort that will be just as stunning 30-plus years from now.

It’s Oscar time. •

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir. Andrew Dominik; writ. Dominik (screenplay), Ron Hansen (novel); feat. Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Zooey Deschanel (R)


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