Hauntingly beautiful, ‘Jesse’ is one of the most meticulously detailed and original biopics ever made. Coming off of acclaimed Aussie indie flick “Chopper”, Andrew Dominik displays incredible filmmaking acumen with this drama that both harkens back to the classics of the genre in the 70’s, and simultaneously reinvents the often cliche and gritty western as a languid artistic masterpiece with the length and depth of a classic leather-bound novel of old.
The literature metaphor is apt as at 160 minutes, ‘James’ certainly takes its time wandering its many wind-swept wheatfields and pin drop quiet white rooms. The plot often takes detours following the other members of the gang whilst James himself disappears for long stretches at a time. Even when off screen though, the legend and talk remains consistently about the man and/or Robert Ford’s hero worship of him.
Ultimately, all of these little segues are relevant to the narrative. From his smelling of used bed sheets to watching James soak in a tub, some have dismissed Ford’s obsession as subconscious gay longing for James’ affection, but there’s a lot more too it than that. Pitt’s superb and deceptively multi-faceted performance brilliantly plays up the celebrity charm routine element of his character’s legend and how he uses it to manipulate others, along with the increasingly haunted paranoia of a man who seems well aware his time has come.
In fact the film never tries to build suspense – driving towards the titular event with an unwavering sense of inevitability so that by the time the shot is fired, everyone involved has long been resigned to their fates including James himself. Affleck as the insecure and often-humiliated Ford delivers a rich and powerful portrayal, showing off new facets of very familiar type of character. D.O.P. Roger Deakins delivers some truly extraordinary photography with some rather stark locales. His use of lighting (most notably in the train robbing sequence) and warm earth colors give the normally drab mid-West a rich and natural palette.
It’s a film that ultimately requires a lot of patience with its drawn out scenes and dialogue. In fact if you were to fast-forward it at twice speed, you could probably still enjoy all the film’s rewards without having to endure the glacial pacing. Then however you’d miss its rich atmosphere – the artistic landscapes, the tense love and fear the characters have of Jesse, the preciseness of the documentary-like voiceover, and the fascinating exploration of the James legend post-kill. A long journey, but one of the most rewarding in a long time.