Decent Films Mail > Mailbag #4

Re: Gladiator (2000)

The review contains this sentence “Like its hero Maximus — the squinting, beefy, unassuming…”

What is the point of mentioning he squints? I squint because of light sensitivity and find that the word is often used in a negative context. People dont usually mention squinting unless they want to put someone down. So what are you trying to say about his character when you mention he squints?

It’s been seven years since I wrote that review, but I think I was trying to say that he squinted. It’s a descriptive detail, along with “beefy,” meant to evoke a picture of the character in the reader’s mind. Come to think of it, I can imagine someone with weight problems taking issue with “beefy” too, but neither word was meant pejoratively.

Visual descriptions can make writing vivid or even memorable. I’ve often envied my friend and fellow critic Lawrence Toppman’s gift for sketching an actor’s appearance or performance with an apt metaphor or a well-chosen phrase. Every time I see Gary Sinise in a film, I remember Toppman’s review of Ransom, which mentioned Sinese, “with his mailbox slot of a mouth,” in the villain role. That is exactly what Gary Sinese’s mouth is like.

Coincidentally, your email comes the day before the opening of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which opens with a line of narration, taken directly from the 1983 novel, describing James’s blue eyes as “so deeply shadowed” by his eyebrows “that he hardly ever squinted.”

Despite this infrequent squinting, the narrator adds (both in the film and in the book) that — due to a condition referred to as “granulated eyelids” — Jesse blinked more than usual, “as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept.” Blinkers of the world, unite!

P.S. I can’t resist noting that — according to’s invaluable search feature — the novel goes on to mention Jesse “squinting” at least five times, but “blinking” only once. I meant, at the outset of the film, to watch for Pitt blinking, but I forgot.

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Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

B+ | *** | -1| Adults

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the best name for a western of any film in history. It’s the second half of the title that does it — the editorial moralizing, redolent of a 19th-century dime novel or monograph. The kind of thing that boys like young Bob Ford eagerly devoured in their beds at night as they dreamed of being daring and admired like Jesse James.

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