Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jesse James is dead

Are we having fun yet?

Believe it or not, we now have two, count 'em, two westerns in American movie theaters, not just in the same decade, but at the same time.

Dirty Harry over at Libertas has written a glowing review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
"Through methodical pacing and meticulous cinematography and sound design writer/director Andrew Dominik mesmerizes with his story of the final year in the life of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his death at the hands of Robert Ford..."

"Each shot of the film is like a painting [framed] deliberately using candlelight to its maximum effect to create any mood the scene calls for. ... Even more impressive is the sound design that brings you right onto the vast wintry plains and into the echoey wood floored cabins of the day."

DH considers it a masterpiece.
[Jesse James is not] only the best film I’ve seen all year, but in many years. It was more than a film, it’s what all great films are: an experience. One I look forward to reliving again many times.
Given the fact snobbier reviewers were praising the 2 hour, 40 minute experience as a "mournful ballad" and "probing character essay" of "lyrical fatalism," I wasn't eager to see this -- particularly since negative reviews preferred comparisons like "endurance test" and "watching a book on tape."

DH seems to acknowledge some of this:

"This isn’t a film for everyone. It’s a moody character piece that takes its time with very little action and draws drama from the movement of an eye. In many ways it’s reminiscent of Scorsese’s Age of Innocence..."

Age of Innocence was a brilliant, brilliant film that has never really been given its due, either in following or its rightful place in Scorsese's catalog. But we're talking about a western, of which DH has this to say:
The Western wasn’t killed by an indifferent audience but rather at the hands of political correctness. Straight-forward stories like Tombstone, 3:10 to Yuma, and Open Range, still put as many butts in seats as any zombie film. It’s only when stricken with the modernism of a Silverado, the grating feminism of Bad Girls, and the hand-wringing self-loathing of Geronimo that they die well-deserved premature deaths. Other than touching on the fascination of celebrity — something as old as mankind – Jesse James is about the universal themes we all relate to. How refreshing not to once hear about the plight of the Indian."
So all in all, a brilliant Film, but another moody downer in the tradition of Unforgiven.

Me? I'll take the Open Range end of the Western spectrum over depth and artistry every time.

Give me Tombstone -- historically and artistically challenged, but the last shoot-'em-up with a sense of adventure and real fun. I want something that revisits the West and delivers not only black hat/white hat thrills but also views the setting as an exciting land of opportunity, not a decaying page in a forgotten history book.

Even action-packed Yuma was too grubby and introspective to really put those butts in the seats in a major way.

Don't get me wrong. Dirty Harry won't lead us astray. He knows his stuff and is relatively stingy with the ole thumbs-up. I'll therefor surely give Jesse James a shot, pun intended.

But whatever the reason, viewer indifference -- i.e. the very real prospect of NOT having a good time at the movies -- really is what killed the western. And despite two really quality films in the blessed space of a month, I think we can all agree the western is as dead as it was a year ago.

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