Stately Jesse James Drama As Much About His Killer As It Is About The Legend
A number of movies have been made about Jesse James, including 1966's oddly entertaining Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, but none of them was great. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn't either, but it's certainly the best yet. It's also a traditional western in that it gladly embraces the genre's classic motifs while also attempting a bit of genre deconstruction, such as Robert Altman tried with McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Clint Eastwood triumphed at with Unforgiven. There's something curiously timeless about this flawed visual poem from writer/director Andrew Dominik.
It's 1881, James (Brad Pitt) is 34 and, even though he can't rent a house under his legal name, one of the most famous men in America. Newspapers celebrate the Confederate-at-heart train robber's victories against the Northern bourgeoisie, which has fueled the state of Missouri's need to bring him down. This could be why James, along with his brother Frank (Sam Shepard, in a bit part) are, at the start of Assassination, disbanding the legendary James Gang. It's time to put up the guns, which devastates Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a weaselly 19-year-old who grew up idolizing James and has fantasies about becoming his "sidekick." James, who enjoys Ford's nervous adulation, invites him to stay with his family but, after a biblical 40 days, kicks him out because he can't decide if Ford wants to be like him or actually be him.
Ford, who has spent his whole life mocked, especially for his obsession with James, slowly begins to unravel as he comes to realize that his hero is probably paranoid, delusional, and perhaps even, though he wouldn't have known the language at the time, schizophrenic. James senses this about himself, too; prone to violent mood swings spurred on by the hunt for him, he can turn on even his closest friends in a heartbeat and, if convinced they're a threat, shoot them dead with no evident remorse.
When Ford shoots James' cousin in a scuffle, his divorce from the outlaw is complete; he no longer is trying to be like his idol, but has become a cold-blooded murderer like James and, to regain his dignity, decides to betray and assassinate a man he once boasted to be his friend. In doing this, Ford is convinced he can achieve the greatness for which he believes he was destined.
The actual act turns out to be less an assassination than a suicide. Thanks to a dramatic re-imagining of the James legend courtesy of the movie's source book by Ron Hansen, James, all too aware that something is terrifyingly wrong with his mind, presents himself to Ford, willingly turning his back to dust a picture in an act akin to the suicidal conclusions of many of Jean-Pierre Melville's later masterpieces.
While this might appear like the logical place to roll the credits, Dominik opts instead to continue on in a drawn-out epilogue that, compared to the rest of the movie's sluggish pace, grinds along to an anti-climactic end. Ford, it turns out, achieved his greatness, becoming for a time the most famous man in America for his treacherous act, but celebrity gets the best of him. The most bizarre element found in this protracted wrap-up is the casting of the extremely talented Zooey Deschanel as Ford's wife; she literally has one line. It's an even worse squandering of talent than casting Mary-Lousie Parker as James' wife, Zee, and then giving her nothing to do except cook, cook, and, in the end, scream.
Affleck's performance as Ford is unsettling, creepy even, and even as you empathize with Ford's need to matter you can't help but be revolted by him. As James, Pitt demonstrates the casual ease he's brought to his roles since Ocean's Eleven. What he chooses to reveal about James in his acting decisions are, in the end, as enigmatic as the ones Affleck uses to make Ford such a complex character.
Unfortunately, the movie's greater success is undermined by Dominik's habit of letting the story drift with long, tangential scenes that could have been wrapped up in brief bouts of dialogue or the laborious, ever-present narration that recalls pretentious authors reading their works. In fact, at 160 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford feels like a book on screen.