The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starts with images, moments, visions -- all grounded in the dry, calm tone of the narrator explaining where we are, and who we're watching. We meet Jesse James -- played by Brad Pitt -- and Robert Ford -- played by Casey Affleck; their ultimate relationship can hardly be in doubt, given the title of the Ron Hansen novel Andrew Dominik's adapted for the screen. But this isn't a mystery. Instead, Dominik gives us -- through gorgeous camerawork and a ridiculously talented group of actors -- a carefully-crafted dreamlike vision that captures the moment in time when The West became America, when a frontier became part of civilization, when the myth of the West went from something lived to a story that was told.
With amazing cinematography (courtesy of regular Coen Brothers collaborator Rodger Deakins) and a sprawling cast (Pitt and Affleck aside, other parts are played by Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Ted Levine and Jeremy Renner), you can feel what Dominik's shooting for. He's made a rich, ripe,'70s-styled Western that exploits and explodes the Western mythos, equally influenced by Altman's range and reach in depicting the affairs of men and Malick's wide-eyed wonder in depicting the natural world. (There are a few Coen Brothers touches in with the Malick and Altman, as well; a tea spoon shows bitter knowledge sinking in, death comes as clumsy fumbling lunges.) With its wintry tones and measured movements, you'd be excused for thinking that The Assassination of Jesse James is far from Dominik's first feature, the low-budget, brawling and messy prison story Chopper. At the same time, though, both are about criminal aristocrats -- the best possible kind of bad men. You want to see them change their lives, but know full well they can't.
And while Pitt is fine here -- he's as enigmatic and half-seen as you'd want an icon to be -- it's Affleck who impresses. His Ford is so affable, so ingratiating, so desperate to be liked that you start out not liking him; in time, though, you come to despise him. Affleck's always had a lightweight quality to him on film -- boyish and callow -- but he's ripened into something sick and swollen here, and the film's the better for it.
Here at Toronto, a fellow film critic gave The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford what may sound like a pan, or faint endorsement: "I liked it; it's the kind of film you can fall asleep during, but wake up inside the same dream." It's actually praise: The film does feel like a hallucination, a vision, a piece of pure cinema. That may be in part thanks to the film's length -- at 140 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford feels a bit unwieldy. At the same time, I couldn't say definitively what to cut, or what plot threads to drop; I was too impressed by the drape and shape of the whole to begin plucking at individual threads. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is going to have a hard time in the marketplace, but it feels like the sort of film that wears those dim prospects like a badge of honor. Audiences looking for charm and grace and shoot-'em-up action, starring America's biggest movie star, will be sorely disappointed; anyone looking for beauty and transcendence and a meditation on the West starring a terrific ensemble will be more than rewarded.