"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a literal title that doesn't leave much room for interpretation, and that is why it is perfectly named. By immediately exposing the central event of the story, writer-director Andrew Dominik (2001's "Chopper"), adapting from the acclaimed 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, is free to explore deeper and weightier subject matter than the western genre usually allows. The intoxicatingly unhurried pacing, mixed with a sumptuous literary narration delivered by Hugh Ross (1999's "For Love of the Game
"), entrancingly woven storytelling, remarkably well-defined performances, and lushly beautiful visuals courtesy of cinematographer Roger Deakins (2007's "In the Valley of Elah
"), collectively join forces for a lyrical, undeniably powerful motion picture that puts to shame the flat and murky recent "3:10 to Yuma
Seamlessly weaving together historical fact with a few likely instances of artistic license, the film portrays the events leading up to and following the assassination of infamous 34-year-old bandit and outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt). Following the latest in a string of train robberies, Jesse watches as his newest gang of co-conspirators gradually fall apart, some due to a falling-out and others due to being captured by the authorities. Shoehorning his way into Jesse's life is 19-year-old Robert "Bob" Ford (Casey Affleck), younger brother of gang member Charley (Sam Rockwell) and a not-too-subtly idolizing fan of the desperado.
As Jesse's paranoia and understandable mistrust of former acquaintances escalates, his deadly actions exposing his cold-blooded capacity and dissolving mental state, Bob's adoration of Jesse turns to fear and disdain. Ultimately, by April 1882, Bob and Charley will find themselves forced into holing up with Jesse and his family in Saint Joseph, Missouri, their lives on the line and their ulterior motive of turning the wanted man in no longer the secret intended.
It is these circumstances that lead to the title event, but not to the end of the movie. For anyone who is not intimately familiar with the actual tale, the final thirty minutes are a riveting, poignant and unforeseeable example of truth being stranger than fiction. That is not to say that what comes before this note-perfect third act is inferior to the ending; from the opening sequencea fascinatingly and thoughtfully narrated introduction to Jesse James reminiscent of a great novel come to lifewriter-director Andrew Dominik has the viewer in his grasp. Correction: the patient viewer. Audiences expecting a fast and lean Old West shoot-'em-up in lieu of the ruminative character study that is "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" will be disappointed. For everyone else who appreciates a few extra layers of meat to their films, it will blow most tried-and-true westerns out of the water.
Though action is scarcethere is a train robbery grippingly portrayed early on and an unorthodox gun battle midway throughthe picture is a chilling (and chilly) mood piece that is more concerned with raising the stakes via quietly suffocating tension than loud bursts of chaos and fury. This is a welcome respite to what is anticipated, and the superb character work and thematically rich elements leave an ingrained and lasting impression. Obsession; greed; jealousy; the uneasy sense of lurking danger; the elusiveness of one's fate; the incalculable effect a person's decisions have on his or her life; the differences between one's grandiose public image and their real beingall of these subjects and several more are either touched upon or substantially studied throughout "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The sheer breadth of ideas swirling in the movie's head is staggering and, even when a supporting character gets short-shrifed due to time constraints or a person's motivation for doing something lacks clarity (at least upon first viewing), that is a minuscule sacrifice for the enthralling spread offered up.
Brad Pitt (2006's "Babel
") and Casey Affleck (2006's "The Last Kiss
") own the film as, respectively, Jesse James and Robert Ford. Pitt is contemplative, charming, unhinged and downright frightening, sometimes at once and other times alternately. Through Pitt's turn, it is easy to see why Jesse is hero-worshiped by Bob and also why Bob equally grows to loathe him. For Affleck, this is his finest performance to date, a role that showcases the sprawling range of his acting abilities. Robert Ford is a young man who, in an early scene, is told by Jesse's elder brother Frank (Sam Shepard), "You kind of give me the willies." There are hints that he is a little off-kilter in his interest in Jesse, but, as is so often the case, no definitive signs of what he is fully capable of. Affleck plays Bob as a sad and sympathetic outsider, one who pushes too hard to get his way but then emotionally recoils when others call him out on it. It's a brilliant, multilayered slice of acting that rarely, if ever, strikes a false note.
The supporting turns are quite strong, as well, though only Sam Rockwell (2007's "Joshua
"), a standout as Charley Ford, and Paul Schneider (2005's "The Family Stone
"), as ex-gang member Dick Liddil, receive any amount of lengthy screen time. Also of note: Garret Dillahunt as the possibly double-crossing Ed Miller; a nighttime scene between him and Jesse on horseback is thoroughly haunting. Mary-Louise Parker (2004's "Saved!
") and Zooey Deschanel (2007's "Bridge to Terabithia
") also memorably, albeit briefly, turn up as Zee James, Jesse's wife, and Dorothy Adams, a lady friend whom Bob confides in following the assassination. Speaking of the murder of the title, it is breathtakingly carried off, so filled with silent dread and skin-digging suspense as to be unforgettable.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is one of the most cinematically assured works of the year, a gorgeous poetic epic more so than a conventional motion picture. The relationship between Jesse and Robert, friendly before becoming strained and then fatally dysfunctional, is the soul of the story, but the images linger just as long in the viewer's memory. From a train illuminating the pitch-black night, its lights flickering through the forest trees, to fish swimming beneath a frozen pond, to the sweeping fields of wheat, to the bitterly cold snow-covered landscapes of mountains and plains, to the atmospheric shadows piercing the characters' faces as they uncomfortably navigate their way around surviving, the film is made up of 160 minutes' worth of picturesque frames. Transcending its genre, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a near-masterpiece, resonating in the tragedy of lives gone astray and lost, and in a lot of ways just as radiant in its loftily ambitious minor imperfections.