If you didn't know anything about The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (and, let's be honest, most people haven't), you might be drawn in by its title. A western about the life and death of famed outlaw Jesse James would certainly be intriguing to audiences. And when they find out that world class A-list star Brad Pitt is playing the titular James, and up-and-comer Casey Affleck, fresh off of his career defining performance in Gone Baby Gone, is playing his killer, certainly they would take a second look. And when they heard that the supporting cast featured such talents as Mary Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel, and Sam Rockwell, it would virtually guarantee seats in theaters. So why was the film virtually buried by Warner Bros?
Writer/Director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) did not make a rollicking western yarn, as the above elements might suggest. Instead, he composed a deep, contemplative character study that eschewed most of the genre elements that bring people to westerns in the first place. Brad Pitt plays Jesse James, the notorious outlaw. He and his brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), have taken to hiring vagabonds and young kids as the regulars in their gang dropped out, died, or were taken by the law. In the late 1880's, Jesse and Frank go on a job with Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), and his younger brother, Robert (Casey Affleck). Robert has had an infatuation with the James brothers since he was small, and to see his idols up close is a real thrill. Frank dislikes the boy from the start, but Jesse seems tickled by Robert's adoration. However, the love soon turns to envy and hate, and Robert begins to resent Jesse and his fame, and aims to do something about it.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an anti-western. It contains almost none of the hallmarks of the genre, instead choosing to focus on plumbing the depths of its main characters. Dominik has a talent for giving the smallest details great significance, tracking the subtle changes in tone and mood. The film has an unearthly feel to it, like all the events are happening in the realm of legend. This effect is aided by the monotone narration, which, instead of distancing the audience from the material, draws them in with its understated approach to the unfolding events.
Casey Affleck, who recently wowed audience with his forceful performance in Gone Baby Gone, proves that he has the chops in him to go toe to toe with his elders. His portrayal as Robert Ford is a fascinating world of contradictions. He clearly idolizes Jesse James, but the reality of the man is far different from the stories he would read by his bedside as a child. His affection for James is less focused on the man, and more on his fame. It's clear throughout the picture that Ford considers himself a great man, and will do anything to attain the attention of the public. Affleck plays these emotions barely beneath the surface. So often you can see the hint of contempt or nervousness flit across his face. It's an impressive bit of acting.
Brad Pitt also offers a sober reflection of Jesse James. While James' didn't share Pitt's rugged good looks, the real evocation of the character is in his dangerously charismatic persona. Pitt has always veered towards darker roles, and Jesse James is no exception. In Pitt's hands, James is a leader of men, but unable to control his own moods. He's manic depressive and keenly perceptive. He's often referred to as a man who knows everything that is going on, but in fact he is very good at putting small facts together. Pitt makes James a constant surprise. Neither the characters nor the audience know what he's going to do next.
The film is slow and meditative, but it's also sumptuous and gorgeous. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was nominated for an Oscar for his beautiful shots, and the wheat fields blowing in the breeze or the steam rushing off a stopped train engine only add to the ghostly feel for which Dominik was aiming. And while the film runs 160 minutes, it never feels that long. Yes, it's slow. But it creates its own rhythm that feels appropriate to the material. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford demands that the audience come to it on its terms, not theirs. But for those willing to take the plunge, they'll find a fascinating take on one of America's most famous (and infamous) sons.
The Blu-ray Disc: