The spoiler-prone, mouthful of a movie title, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, seems nearly on the brink of slipping off the edges of any theater marquee, while inciting potential ridicule about being just plain dumb. Or is it.
The lyrically crafted, smart and stylishly subversive anti-western revisiting of that more than well trodden Jesse James antihero bandit lore, may simply be in favor of substituting the more eye-catching tabloid headline of today, in a world where neither traditional dramatic suspense nor the line between reality and infotainment on sensationalistic instant rewind, really seem to matter.
Aussie director Andrew Dominik (Chopper) is in no way merely rehashing cowboy conventions here. His provocative, deliberately paced, moody and poetic reimagining of Jesse James as tragic iconic outcast in his last days, breathes vivid new life into the old rumor-fueled tall tales, attaining yes, nearly Shakespearean proportions.
Credit is likewise due to Dominik’s collaborators on the film. Including legend in his own right, award winning Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins and his stunning visual lyricism, and writer Ron Hansen, whose acclaimed novel of the same name graces the film with its eloquent, mock-pulp literary voiceover passages.
In a bit of genius casting, Brad Pitt, who knows all about doing time as a celebrity bad boy, breezes through his role as the world weary desperado who just wants to withdraw from the limelight and be left alone to get into that family man thing. And Casey Affleck, who both here and in the real world wouldn’t mind a sweet taste of super-fame enjoyed by Brad/Jesse and his own brother Ben, is the awkward teen and infamous groupie, Robert Ford.
Robert idolizes an indifferent Jesse to the point of obsession and dangerous envy. Relegated to the shadows of Jesse and his own outlaw sibling Charley (Sam Rockwell), Robert endures the contempt and suspicion directed his way by an increasingly paranoid and unpredictably violent Jesse. Who may have in fact been afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder as a Confederate rebel vet of the recent Civil War, still carrying those emotional scars and the deeply felt disgrace of defeat.
With this Wild West version of urban street creed not so easy to come by, wannabe frontier American Idol Bob decides to try out government mercenary for size as an alternative. And so he seals a pact with crafty Missouri Governor Crittenden (played by James Carville, a real life political mastermind with a few coincidental damage control credibility issues of his own), to worm his way into the good graces of Jesse and gun him down from behind.
The Assassination of Jesse James gets that gossip media hook into the mystique of the hunted and the symbiotic hunger of the hunter just right, and doesn’t let go. And in an eerie and chilling prophetic touch, Brad’s defiant anti-Yankee, over the hill outlaw roams the rugged wilderness like a blonde, blue-eyed Bin Laden hanging out in the mountains of Afghanistan. Later after his death, the peculiar three ring circus filing around Jesse’s paraded corpse and related memorabilia and photos hawked for chump change, conjure Saddam and his sons post mortem, deja vu.
Though taking its own good time to unspool at an expansive, leisurely pace, there isn’t a moment in the film that doesn’t activate the senses and stir thinking about the surprisingly complex, larger than life man and his times. From its broad take on the tango of violence and entertainment in this culture, to intimate detours into the comical macho banter of the lonely cowpokes around a campfire, and especially the way a heated train heist – much like a smoke after sex in movies – gets some cooling down relaxation time with a good cigar savored in front porch rocking chairs. Ah, wilderness.
Warner Home Video
3 1/2 stars
DVD Features: Behind the Scenes; Making of Documentary: The Assassination Of Jesse James: Death Of An Outlaw.