FALLING IN LOVE with words is a great thing for just about anybody - it can turn reading into a healthy addiction, writing into art.
For filmmakers, though, it can be a problem. The graveyard of misfired movies is full of pictures made by folks who loved the language of a book, only to find that the magic of the words themselves could not be translated to the screen.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (wow, talk about your spoilers) is an example. It's adapted from Ron Hansen's lyrical 1983 novel by star/producer Brad Pitt, a Missouri boy who saw the book as a definitive, highbrow account of his state's most infamous son.
Pitt handpicked Australian director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper") for the project, and hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler to provide a look that might capture the spirit of the book's stylized, antique prose.
There's a lot about this ambitious project that works, starting with Pitt's embodiment of hunted outlaw Jesse James as a man elevated and doomed by his own celebrity.
The other title role - that of Ford - goes to Casey Affleck, whose complex performance is a treatise on the fraught celebrity/fan relationship: how idolatry is mixed with envy, how devotee and stalker can merge into a single being.
The film opens with James' career as an outlaw in decline - he splits with brother Frank (Sam Shepard), his regular gang fragments and scatters, and Jesse surrounds himself with second-raters (the prototypical entourage?). One is Robert Ford, an eager little runt of a man who sleeps with a hatbox full of James-inspired pulp literature under his bed. Ford is instantly disliked and feared by those closest to the outlaw, but tolerated by James, for a variety of suggested reasons (Ford watches James bathe - was he gay?).
The movie's most elaborate conceit is that James - hunted by the Pinkertons, squeezed by the disappearing frontier, made obsolete by time and history - foresaw his early death and selected Ford as the man to make him a martyr to outlaw iconography.
But if Ford's treacherous act is meant to be tragic and moving, it sure doesn't feel that way. Perhaps because efforts to ground James in history as a vicious murderer, capable of his own cold-blooded and treacherous assassinations, succeed only too well.
There is also an aura of detachment to "Assassination" that may stem from its fussy, arty tone. The cello music, the funny hats, the careful widescreen composition - it's almost the revisionist western as kitsch, another attempt to recapture the auteurism of the 1970s with mimicry.
And, of course, there is the movie's love affair with the language of the book and of the period. Director Dominik devoted long, languorous scenes (the movie runs 160 minutes) to secondary characters exchanging artful, period dialogue. These are fine little period artifacts and short films in and of themselves, but do nothing to advance the James/Ford dynamic central to the movie's purpose.
Intermittent spasms of florid narration are a final tribute to Hansen's prose, and a final, fussy touch that somebody should have lopped off during the movie's two-year post-production. *