The 160-minute The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is going to be one of those “difficult” movies that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, mainly because it can’t be quickly explained or understood, or broken down into a 30-second sound bite. It’s not a sweeping, spectacular epic, but rather a quiet, wintry epilogue. The real hitch is that director Andrew Dominik chooses not to deconstruct the James myth, as would be the expected, rational approach in our postmodern age, but rather embraces it and expands on it.
Brad Pitt stars—and deserves Oscar consideration—as Jesse James at the tail end of the bandit’s illustrious career. He’s living with his wife and two kids under an assumed name. He pulls his last job, robbing a train, with the help of his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), and a band of hired goons and half-wits. With the aid of cinematographer Roger Deakins, this opening sequence already astonishes with its unique use of light and darkness among the slender, splintery trees. (The landscape perfectly reflects the character’s psychology throughout.) One of the goons is Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), brother of Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who is one of the biggest fans James ever had. Bob has a shoebox full of James memorabilia, including all those fantastical dime novels full of exciting, shoot-’em-up adventure tales. Bob somehow makes an impression on the mysterious Jesse; he’s invited to stay with the family for a few days. James further fuels Bob’s fantasies by neither confirming nor denying all those tales and doing mystifying things like chopping off the heads of live snakes.
From there the movie turns into a kind of chess game, in which the gang separates and the members each ride through the snow and countryside to get to one another, presumably to get the upper hand on one another. It’s a bit complex and a tad confusing, but this is where Dominik’s film shows its brilliance. Jesse may have been the nation’s first great celebrity—the narration makes it known that more people could identify him than the president—and he plays into this power with ultimate mastery. James can sit across a table from a man and watch the man watching him, and seem to know exactly what’s going on. Pitt couldn’t be more perfect for the role; he has a way of licking his lips that lets us know he’s in control and that he savors that control. Even when characters appear apart from James, they’re under his gaze. If nobody else, including the audience, fully understands the setup, James certainly does.
When it comes time for the assassination of the title, the movie does it by the book: Bob Ford shoots Jesse in the back, in his own home, with a gun given to Bob by Jesse, while Jesse is balanced on a ladder straightening a picture. The movie sets it up as if James has choreographed the entire scene, like Obi-Wan Kenobi allowing himself to be cut down by Darth Vader because the repercussions will be far greater than the moment itself.
Dominik’s previous film, Chopper (2001), didn’t reveal any particularly notable skill or talent, but here he approaches stylists like Terrence Malick and David Lynch, spreading out his story across a wide canvas and taking his time with every detail. If James needs to spend a full minute sizing up an opponent, Dominik provides him that minute, uninterrupted and uncut. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a surprising near-masterpiece, certainly one of the year’s best films, and the best Western to come across the range since Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider, Mary-Louise Parker
Directed by Andrew Dominik