If one had no other reference with regards to the American West, they might gather from this movie that Jesse James’ notoriety came from his ability to talk people to death. Well, most of the jaw-jackin’ in this movie comes from the titular coward, but there is no shortage of talk and a relative dearth of the gunplay that one expects from a typical horse opera.
Of course, this movie is not trying to be a traditional genre western, but rather has somewhat artier pretensions, something along the lines of “Terrence Malick meets John Ford.” In a sense, this is about the pre-history of America’s celebrity-obsessed culture. As the movie opens, legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is near the twilight of his career, with just one more train robbery to pull with his brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Most of his original gang is either dead or in jail, so he assembles a new gang that includes the Ford brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Bob (Casey Affleck). The younger Ford has read every dime novel written about Jesse and hero-worships the outlaw with intensity that creeps out the rest of the gang but amuses their leader, at least for a while.
In another era, Bob Ford would be called a stalker. He’s an insecure young man who feels like the rest of world has ignored his finer qualities and that his association with Jesse James will allow him to achieve the level of fame he feels that he deserves. When that doesn’t happen, adulation slowly gives way to bitterness and betrayal. Ironically, James begins to sink into paranoia and takes in the Ford brothers for protection against the Pinkerton detectives that he imagines are around every corner.
The middle of this movie plays out at a leisurely pace, with the Ford brothers off-screen, as Jesse James methodically takes out various members of his surviving gang in revenge for imagined betrayals. In that sense, the movie doesn’t buy into the popular legend of the outlaw as an Old West Robin Hood. This Jesse James is a thief and a killer, totally unworthy of the admiration that Robert Ford feels for him. This makes the narration, which echoes the worshipful dime novels that Ford devoured as a child, bracingly ironic.
Brad Pitt gives a superb portrayal of a hunted man in decline but this film belongs to Casey Affleck, who continues a career year with a role 180 degrees away from Gone Baby Gone. He is so effective as a strange man completely out of step with others’ opinion of him that I almost took out a restraining order against the actor, just out of reflex.
While the pace of this film will try a short patience, there are rewards for sticking with it. Besides the first-rate performances, there is the gorgeous cinematography, which sometimes cleverly emulates photographs of the period in which the film is set. For this reason, and despite a middle that drags on too long, The Assassination of Jesse James is definitely worth the investment of your time.