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Movie Review: 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford'
Andrew Dominick's somber, sober and seemingly well-researched Western is a film that plays as long as its title -- "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
We know what's coming, a picture to be straightened on the wall, a bullet fired while a back is turned, a version of that classic folk tune that goes "Jesse had a wife, who mourned for his life, three children they were brave."
But Dominick takes his own sweet time getting us there.
Assassination, based on a Ron Hansen novel, re-imagines this legendary piece of Western lore as a Jesus-Judas tale of betrayal. Dominick's film rides on the back of Casey Affleck as the boyish, hero-worshipping Robert Ford, a late addition to Jesse's circle and, it turned out, a fatal one.
In early scenes, Affleck-as-Ford all but begs first Frank James (Sam Shepard), then Jesse (Brad Pitt), to let him be their "sidekick."
"I honestly believe I'm destined for great things," he assures them as their eyes roll and their patience runs out. He really shouldn't start his pitch with "Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop."
Ford, younger brother to the always-laughing Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell, pretty good here), isn't taken seriously. He bears each new insult from Jesse with sheepish good humor. But we know better.
As Jesse, Pitt wears the dark clothes and shows the weariness of an outlaw who hasn't really realized that he has aged out of his career of train and bank robberies. At 34 (Pitt is 44), Jesse has a wife (Mary Louise Parker, with little to play here), children and a secret "cattleman" identity that he wears in the various towns where he lives.
But Jesse has gotten sloppy. The film's opening train robbery, his last (in 1881) is both ruthless and inept. Jesse has, the ever-present narrator (Hugh Ross) says, run out of reliable "sidekicks." Dominick's movie focuses mostly on these lesser lights in the outlaw firmament.
Would you rather watch Brad Pitt's movie-star turn in an iconic leading role, or the likes of Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Affleck and Rockwell's characters' concern with earning Jesse's ire, each fearing that James will ride through the snow, see into their hearts, and shoot them? It's an interesting part of the story to tell, just not the most interesting.
What's worse, Dominick, a New Zealander with scanty previous credits, wastes a lot of screen time impersonating Terrence "Badlands" Malick. Too many shots of pretty clouds racing across a geographically incorrect sky or wind making amber waves of grain, lyrically bringing his picture to a halt.
Affleck's Ford is the fellow we follow when we're not looking at wheat, and his motivations are thoroughly explored. A nickel-novel reader who worshipped Jesse from afar, he has bought into Jesse's rebel "Last holdout of the Confederacy" mythology. He craves a myth all his own. And while he fears the man as much as the members of this gang that can't shoot straight, he is the most disillusioned by the real Jesse.
Pitt's James is a cryptic figure, capable of terrible, unexpected violence -- utterly paranoid as a man on the run might be. It's an engaging, mysterious performance that gets by mostly on Pitt's charisma.
One thing that isn't a mystery though is why this Western sat on the shelf for ages before hitting theaters. It's arty, lovely to look at. It has a "name" cast. It's just dull in ways that editing probably couldn't fix. And Casey Affleck isn't a name that sells tickets.
This isn't the best of the James Gang dramas. That's still Walter Hill's "The Long Riders," with its brilliant casting of siblings to play the James, Younger and Ford brothers and its iconic stunt -- horsemen riding through a plate glass window to escape justice in Northfield, Minn., where James' glory days ended.
But for those craving a view of how dark and crowded railroad cars really were, what bad shots most of these pistol-packers were, or awed by the sight of dangerous men in buffalo coats riding through knee-deep snow, it's a view of the West beyond the myth that's worth enduring, if not relishing.
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