In 1881 America, the equivalent of the tabloid story of its time would be the murder of the country's biggest celebrity, an outlaw and a murderer who inspired awe and admiration in many, by one of those who idolized him and became an insider. Legends would become mixed with truths around "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
New Zealand director Andrew Dominik ("Chopper") adapts Ron Hansen's novel and produces a quintessential work of the American Western genre. Brad Pitt gives the best performance of his career as the notorious criminal and his "Ocean's" costar Casey Affleck stands toe to toe with him as the young idol worshipper whose brash exterior hid the meekness at his core.
James is introduced near the end of his career, masquerading as Thomas Howard, a wealthy cattleman with the common touch living in Kansas City with his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker, SHOtimes's "Weeds") and two young children (Brooklynn Proulx, "Brokeback Mountain" and Dustin Bollinger). His charisma is obvious, whether dealing with unsuspecting townsfolk or hanging with his cronies prepping the Blue Cut train robbery. It is here that Robert Ford attempts to join the gang, boasting his worth to Jesse's older brother Frank (Sam Shepard, "Don't Come Knocking"), who will have none of it. Robert bypasses Frank, though, and approaches his idol directly. Jesse seems amused by the obvious hero worship and unbased bravado of the nineteen year old and accepts him into the gang.
Dominik and his director of photography Roger Deakins ("The Village," "In the Valley of Elah") cloak the actual robbery in ghostly mystery, the lights from the train piercing through trees in the dead of night, with sound and score echoing the eeriness of the scene as the train comes to a halt where Jesse straddles the track. His brutality is shocking in its matter of factness, a distinct counterpoint to the dashing rebel of the dime novels. After the robbery, Frank leaves for a normal life and Jesse splits his gang but creates jealousy and suspicion when he keeps Robert on over such intimates as cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner, "Dahmer," "North Country"). As the gang awaits word from Jesse, old rivalries and paranoia mount.
This is a fascinating tale of celebrity and myth vs. reality (the dark side to "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") given complexity via group dynamics and that puzzling central relationship. Dominik lets his story build slowly, using dialogue free visuals and natural sounds to express mood (original music by "The Proposition" team of Nick Cave, who also cameos late in the film, and Warren Ellis, is one of the year's best scores).
Performances are drenched in period reality yet spiked with a modern dose of empathy. Pitt gets at the things that made his character legendary, letting us see the humor and craftiness in his eyes while holding his cards close to the vest. Great sprays of laughter come when James sees through lies, assuring and unsettling his cohorts. Affleck, with his reedy voice and baby teeth, is so beside himself with his good fortune being close to Jesse, his boastful bravado all but escapes him. The later Ford, the man disillusioned by how history treats him, is a much changed man - wiser and curdled with hurt. It's a terrifically insightful performance. Pitt and Affleck are surrounded by terrific character actors - Renner flaunts Hite's air of entitlement, Paul Schneider ("All the Real Girls," "The Family Stone") disappears into poetic, reckless ladies' man Dick Liddil and Garret Dillahunt (HBO's "Deadwood," "John from Cincinnati") is terrifically sympathetic as the slow Ed Miller. As Robert's older brother Charley Ford, Sam Rockwell ("Matchstick Men," "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") turns an initially simple man into one divided between friend and brother and later still a man eaten away by his brother's deed and subsequent behavior. Hugh Ross ("Wyatt Earp," "For Love of the Game") is an elegant narrator. While the women in the film are less represented (Jesse's wife is merely background mother and astonished, hysterical widow), Alison Elliott ("Wyatt Earp," "The Wings of the Dove") makes an impression as a tough as nails boarding house owner and Zooey Deschanel ("All the Real Girls," "Elf") performs a lovely saloon song as Ford's later life girl friend Dorothy Evans.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" tells a classic story of the American West, shot through the melancholy revisionist outlook of "McCabe and Mrs. Miller." It is a beautiful and often surprising film.
Robin did not see this film.
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