The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Directed by Andrew Dominik

Written by Andrew Dominik from the novel by Ron Hansen

Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

"The Assassination of Jessse James by the Coward Robert Ford." The perfect 19th century title for the story of the end of the last great romantic legend of the west, the outlaw as hero. The film, which stars Brad Pitt as Jesse and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, covers the last eight months of James's life in a way that constantly skirts boredom but never succumbs to it; I found it fascinating.

The film starts with the James gang preparing for their last train robbery in Kansas; a narrator tells us only that Jesse has already killed at least seventeen men, that most of the gang is already dead or in prison, and in fact after the robbery Frank James leaves; he is done with his former life and moves to Baltimore. But one young man, Robert Ford, shows up asking to be included in the gang. He has idolized Jesse, and has a collection of popular stories about the legendary outlaw that he keeps in a shoebox under his bed. It's his most precious possession. And he seems to have nothing to offer; he's awkward, self-conscious, clumsy, but James keeps him around, along with his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell). But as Affleck plays him there is a self-awareness in Robert; he knows himself and he knows how to insinuate himself into someone else's life. He will be called a coward but he is not.

And Jesse too is fascinating; he lives under an assumed name in Kansas City with his wife and two children, mingling with the business people there, moving before the neighbors begin suspecting he is not who he says. As the law begins to close in on him and his cousin Dick Liddil turns state's evidence, Jesse moves around the region, testing the loyalty of those who remain. And finds them wanting; only Robert seems to be solidly with him, and yet the title of the film is there to tell us what will happen.

Brad Pitt plays Jesse with a rough goatee and a magnetic manner; he is a hero, to Robert and even to himself. But then we see the psychotic side of this sociopath in a scary episode in which he plays with Robert's life; it is the trigger that will shortly end his own. The acting throughout is perfect, I think; Pitt plays both with and against his magnetism on screen, but the great revelation here is Casey Affleck (Ben's brother) as Robert. Though he seems servile he is very much in command of himself throughout, and to play those two conflicting manners is an almost impossible task. He is unlikable but knows exactly who he is. I would nominate him for an Academy Award.

The film was directed by Andrew Dominik, the Australian whose first film was also a portrait of a killer, "Chopper." He has a lovely sense of how to use the spaciousness of the central plains (the film was shot in Winnipeg and Alberta), and has the services of one of the great cinematographers of all time, Roger Deakins, who's shot most of the Coen brothers' films, along with "Kundun," "House of Sand and Fog," "In the Valley of Elah," and many others.

The film runs two hours and twenty minutes, and I think it needs that time to give us the sense of how life moved in the 19th century. There's a coda at the end, showing us what happened to Robert after Jesse's death; I'm not sure whether that adds to the film or not, but there you are.