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“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

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By Matt Singer

IFC News

[Photo: Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Warner Bros., 2007]

According to Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” that famous outlaw’s last words were “Don’t that picture look dusty.” Dominik’s picture is dusty too, a throwback to the last great period of westerns in the early 1970s, those days of Peckinpah and Siegel and Altman. It succeeds in invoking that era, but not necessarily in equaling its great works.

The title, taken from the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, ostensibly explains the entire story, what little there is. But rather than focusing on the story, the movie is more about the end of the West and a variety of melancholic moods from grief to desperation to resignation to regret. It’s beautifully shot and acted, but languidly paced in a way that blunts most of the movie’s emotional impact.

The movie follows James (Brad Pitt) after the dissolution of his gang in the early 1880s as he attempts to make a home with his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and their children. A young man who idolizes James named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) fall in with the increasingly paranoid and distrusting bandit. Eventually Robert decides to kill his hero and James realizes that Robert’s decided to kill him. The question then becomes what will each do next.

Pitt’s comfortable in the role of the enigmatic nut — his performances in that mold in both “12 Monkeys” and “Fight Club” remain two of his most memorable — and he brings a similar vibe of charismatic psychosis to his take on James. His version of the gunslinger is a little bit Jason Bourne, a little bit the Bogeyman: he’s blessed with an uncanny ability to anticipate danger and scare the hell out of everyone around him. He masks his derangement with overly cordial gestures and speaks in niceties while planning to commit murder. In those past loon roles, Pitt’s opened the characters up to the audiences, let them inside the dementia a bit. His James is a closed book; his motives are as unclear to us as they were to those around him. After he begins to suspect that Robert plans to do him in, he gives him a beautiful new pistol as a gift. How, Robert wonders, is he to interpret the gun? Could the cunning thief have given him a defective weapon to save his own life? Or does Jesse James have a death wish?

It’s these questions that make “The Assassination of Jesse James…” worth watching. But they’re answered in such a vague, haphazard fashion, and they are approached so incredibly slowly (the movie clocks in at over 160 minutes) that the movie almost dares you stop watching it. More frustratingly, the film is a pile of contradictions. It’s a movie all about the intricacy of character despite the fact that it treats shots of rustling thistles with greater care than the dialogue scenes. It exposes the fallacy of some aspects of the Western mystique even as it upholds others. And it is about transience in a remarkably static way.

Dominik is clearly a student of the genre, and he has recaptured much of the mood of those great old ’70s western and even some of their nagging sense of impending doom (just look at that title). When the James gang breaks up, Jesse becomes a bit aimless. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie about him should be equally aimless.

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” opens in limited release on September 21st (official site).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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