By Matt Singer
[Photo: Casey Affleck in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” Warner Bros., 2007]
According to Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” that famous outlaw’s last words were “Don’t that picture look dusty.” Dominik’s picture is dusty too, a throwback to the last great period of westerns in the early 1970s, those days of Peckinpah and Siegel and Altman. It succeeds in invoking that era, but not necessarily in equaling its great works.
The title, taken from the novel of the same name by Ron Hansen, ostensibly explains the entire story, what little there is. But rather than focusing on the story, the movie is more about the end of the West and a variety of melancholic moods from grief to desperation to resignation to regret. It’s beautifully shot and acted, but languidly paced in a way that blunts most of the movie’s emotional impact.
The movie follows James (Brad Pitt) after the dissolution of his gang in the early 1880s as he attempts to make a home with his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and their children. A young man who idolizes James named Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) fall in with the increasingly paranoid and distrusting bandit. Eventually Robert decides to kill his hero and James realizes that Robert’s decided to kill him. The question then becomes what will each do next.
Pitt’s comfortable in the role of the enigmatic nut his performances in that mold in both “12 Monkeys” and “Fight Club” remain two of his most memorable and he brings a similar vibe of charismatic psychosis to his take on James. His version of the gunslinger is a little bit Jason Bourne, a little bit the Bogeyman: he’s blessed with an uncanny ability to anticipate danger and scare the hell out of everyone around him. He masks his derangement with overly cordial gestures and speaks in niceties while planning to commit murder. In those past loon roles, Pitt’s opened the characters up to the audiences, let them inside the dementia a bit. His James is a closed book; his motives are as unclear to us as they were to those around him. After he begins to suspect that Robert plans to do him in, he gives him a beautiful new pistol as a gift. How, Robert wonders, is he to interpret the gun? Could the cunning thief have given him a defective weapon to save his own life? Or does Jesse James have a death wish?
It’s these questions that make “The Assassination of Jesse James…” worth watching. But they’re answered in such a vague, haphazard fashion, and they are approached so incredibly slowly (the movie clocks in at over 160 minutes) that the movie almost dares you stop watching it. More frustratingly, the film is a pile of contradictions. It’s a movie all about the intricacy of character despite the fact that it treats shots of rustling thistles with greater care than the dialogue scenes. It exposes the fallacy of some aspects of the Western mystique even as it upholds others. And it is about transience in a remarkably static way.
Dominik is clearly a student of the genre, and he has recaptured much of the mood of those great old ’70s western and even some of their nagging sense of impending doom (just look at that title). When the James gang breaks up, Jesse becomes a bit aimless. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie about him should be equally aimless.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” opens in limited release on September 21st (official site).