When you’ve got a set full of horses, rickety pistols, and unwashed cowboys, you’ve got everything you need to join the ranks of every other shoot-’em-up B-movie Western ever made. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, however, somehow manages to avoid initiation into the club.
Instead, writer/director Andrew Dominik’s film, which documents the downfall of outlaw Jesse James, is moody and discreet, an ambitious epic that’s punctuated by loaded dialogue instead of loaded guns. It is, in essence, a psychological thriller depicted in shades of film noir, more interested in closing in on the neuroses that make James tick than celebrating his legendary heists.
An unshaven Brad Pitt, as the protagonist, breathes new life into a slice of classic American lore that’s been managed and mismanaged over the decades by a host of other films. Jesse James, despite the fact that he was technically a criminal and cold-blooded killer, has historically been portrayed as a kind of 19th-century Robin Hood, more mischievous than murderous. And it can’t all be written off as revisionism; much of the mythology that still surrounds him today was born while Jesse was still alive. But Assassination remains partial to the facts: Jesse James had some pretty unsavory demons chasing him around.
Pitt is at his best when he’s channeling those demons, re-enacting James’ paranoia-fueled penchant for revenge. As he systemically roots out anyone and everyone in his gang who may be conspiring against him, you can almost hear the wheels churning in his head: Who can he trust? Who is plotting to betray him? Who has to die?
Here again, though, death is the sideshow rather than the main event. When James says “Let’s go for a ride,” you know it’s the last time you’re going to see whoever he’s talking to, but the actual murder is usually alluded to rather than shown. When blood is shed, it somehow seems more poignant than sensational, maybe because the audience is never given the opportunity to become desensitized.
The one gang member that James can’t quite get a handle on is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), an awkward 19-year-old whose admiration for James is matched only by his fear. Ford dreams of being James’ sidekick, but when the outlaw finally takes him in, his awe is exposed as a stalker-esque, homoerotic fixation.
Their relationship is a tangled one, with James feeling at once attracted to Ford’s over-the-top worship and repulsed by it. Over time, Ford turns against his hero, but it’s a narcissistic change of heart. No longer satisfied by hanging on James’ every word, living in his house, touching his belongings, Robert now wants to overthrow the man he’s revered for so long. Moreover, he wants to become him.
The motivations behind James’ eventual assassination—if there ever was a spoiler movie title, this is it—are complicated enough to warrant the lengthy lead-up Assassination grants it. The film clocks in at a languorous two hours and 40 minutes, probably the reason why it’s only being shown at one theater here in Knoxville. But the plot is engaging enough to maintain tension throughout.
It doesn’t hurt that the film is pretty to look at. The camera isn’t too macho to dwell on prairie vistas so expansive and austere that still frames from the film could hold their own on art gallery walls.
Likewise, the film itself isn’t afraid to indulge in moments of silence, where the momentum is carried by subtleties of body language or cinematography rather than action. In film, as in life, it takes courage to pick up a gun, but more courage to put it down.