This month has seen something rare in today's movie climate: the theatrical release of two Westerns. However, while 3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford share a genre, they are very different films.
In fact, each is actually comparable to its title: one short and quick, the other long and slow. 3:10 to Yuma has a clear destination while The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford meanders around the story of two men—and the event that connects them. In fact, while Yuma builds to an action boil, Jesse James begins with the notorious James brothers' last robbery and then goes into a long simmer to methodically study what led to James' death.
In a way, 3:10 to Yuma is what Warner Bros. wanted Jesse James to be: a taut and intelligent gunslinger. But that was not exactly the vision of director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik, who wanted his film to be a historical and epic character study. Apparently, Dominik won the tug of war. More art film than action film, Jesse James is more comparable to the quietly contemplative films of Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line, The New World) than it is to most gunslinging westerns.
Like many of Malick's works, Jesse James takes a historical moment and analyzes it in a study of the psychological, environmental and individual factors at play behind the action. For some, the film will be beautiful and poetic. To others, slow and pondering. I found it somewhere in the middle: a realistic and insightful character study that, despite an arrestingly powerful final third, isn't wholly satisfying because of a long middle, slow plotting, and a lack of story focus.
The plot meanders after the Blue Cut Train Robbery in the movie's first 30 minutes. ...1