This isn't really a review; consider it a breathless, extemporaneous appreciation. I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford a few hours ago and it doesn't feel like something to sit down and matter-of-factly dissect. God, it's a majestic accomplishment. Hard to remember the last time a film had me so deeply in its reality. Park Chan-wook's Oldboy did it; so did Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and, to a lesser extent, Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream and Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men. (All great films, all very different from Assassination; I'm only comparing the effect.) I saw each of those three or four times in the theater and the same will probably end up being true of Andrew Dominik's film.
I experienced Assassination in my skin and my blood and my bones. It's such a powerful piece of art... spooky, absolutely beautiful, and so richly put together. From the trailer and early reviews I expected a tone poem, something lovely to look at but not necessarily affecting in any profound sense--like Terrence Malick's The New World, with its mumbling and utterly inscrutable characters framed by gorgeous forest--so what initially startled me was the genuine humor and deftness of Dominik's script (and of Ron Hansen's dialogue--Hansen wrote the novel). Every character is achingly human and distinguished with care, given dignity and pettiness and strange quirks and spotlit moments.
There are so many perfect things in this film, large and small: The train robbery at the beginning... the sight of Jesse James toying with serpents in his back yard... the glimpse of fish beneath the ice... Dick Liddell seducing his friend's stepmother... the horrific forced laughter after Jesse pretends he's going to slit Bob Ford's throat... the moment of Jesse's murder, which is just as much a suicide...
And everyone involved has done an astonishing job. No slack. Every actor (including Sam Shepherd as Frank James, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddell, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, and Ted Levine--Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, amusingly enough--as a lawman) has got it exactly. Even James Carville. Dominik must be a directing genius to have gotten performances this uniformly excellent out of his cast. And Roger Deakins' cinematography is otherworldly; I've never seen another movie that looked like this. And Warren Ellis and Nick Cave's score got into me like heroin. And--
Enough, I'll stop already. Suffice to say I loved this movie more than any I've seen in a very long time. Will you? Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn't seem to have been universally appreciated. But there have certainly been others--this guy, for example--who felt as strongly as I did. Devin Faraci, maybe the best movie critic on the internet, apparently also loved it so much he's having trouble writing a "review". So did one or two others. Like Magnolia and Oldboy and 2001 and Days of Heaven--it's an idiosyncratic taste. It meanders (perfectly, mesmerizingly) and digresses and draws moments out, and some people will just be bored (fair enough) and others will call it pretentious (many of these people will be ignorant) and that's that. So it's definitely not a movie I'll be recommending to every person I know. Only to select ones.
On the other hand, it appears I won't be able to stop myself from telling everyone about it.