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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford takes about as long as the assassination of Rasputin. And the key to the film’s bloat lies in its very title. Everyday figures are merely killed or murdered; the word “assassination” is reserved for someone with large claims on history. And this is a movie so intent on staking those claims that it becomes an echo chamber of its own importance. Two hours in, you’re likely to mutter, “Kill him, already.”
Working from Ron Hansen’s novel, writer-director Andrew Dominik has picked up his outlaw anti-hero in the twilight of his career. Now 33, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) has managed to elude the law, but the chase has taken its toll. Jesse himself is captious and paranoid; his old gang members are—thanks to him—dead; and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard, decades too old for the role) has sworn off crime and headed east. If Jesse wants to reconstruct his glory days of robbing trains and banks, he’ll have to make do with a group of castoffs, including slow-witted Charley Ford (a splendid Sam Rockwell) and Charley’s unimposing kid brother Bob.
In this latter role, Casey Affleck has at last found a way to transform his actorly limitations into assets. His callow face, his edge-of-puberty timbre, and his unformed personality are all ideally suited to this love-struck fool, who at first wants only to breathe the same air as his outlaw idol. “I can’t figure it out,” Jesse growls. “You wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?” The answer is both. For someone like Bob, who’s been “a loser all my life,” a berth in Jesse’s gang is a ticket to immortality. Only when Jesse spurns him, the film suggests, does Bob seek fame through his idol’s destruction.
None of this Freudian psychodrama would hold together if Pitt’s Jesse didn’t exert the same pull on us that he does on poor Bob. For many years, Pitt has treated acting as something separate from being a movie star. This is the first time I’ve seen him incorporate his own glamour into a serious performance—and actively question that glamour, as though there had always been something sinister behind it. Jesse James lords over his men in the same way that Pitt dominates the camera: with an unforced charisma that signals menace with the tiniest gesture.
Grace notes like these abound in Assassination. Why, then, doesn’t it ascend to a level of grace? There’s no arguing that it’s lovely. Cinematographer Roger Deakins uses convex lenses to create images that are warped and blurred at the edges, as though they’re already receding into memory. And the film’s one train robbery is brilliantly filmed: gravel flying away from the rail at the locomotive’s approach, shocks of light stabbing the night.
Yet there’s something overly premeditated about even the loveliest images. That shot of Jesse, for instance, weighed down in animal pelts, hunched over a frozen-over river—like a buffalo, you can’t help but notice, also going extinct. In that moment, the image is swamped by its explication. And how convincing, really, is the explication? Is the loss of a sociopathic racist really an occasion for sorrow and tears and lots of Nick Cave music?
The other gang members repeatedly mock Bob Ford for carrying around dime-store novels that mythologize Jesse James at the expense of truth. And yet I have a hunch those cheap pop fantasies tell us more about Jesse James’ hold on the culture than this deeply respectful, highly literary movie, a study of celebrity intoxication that refuses to take a drink.