SPOILER ALERT! Brad Pitt
Shocking? Well. Anyone who reads Andrew Dominik
's revealing sentence fragment of a title in its entirety already understands what's going to happen in this movie.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- hereafter, Jesse James -- aims to recreate the legendary outlaw's final weeks so that we might recognize the motivating factors that led to his demise. Article continues below
Because suspense has been subtracted from the equation, we must find pleasure in the ride. You will be saddle sore. Stodgy and deathly slow, Jesse James takes the longest route possible to an anticipated resolution. Roger Deakins, Dominik's brilliant director of photography, musters an array of unforgettable shots as the Jesse James crew trudges through America's plains (Alberta, Canada, in actuality). But the unforgivably drawn-out march becomes a chore that is redeemed only by Casey Affleck
's career-best performance.
Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen's novel begins near the end of Jesse's criminal career. Elder brother Frank (Sam Shepard
) has agreed to one more train heist. The James gang -- in need of local muscle -- recruits an inadequate group which includes star-struck brother Charley (Sam Rockwell
) and Robert Ford (Affleck). Following the job, Robert worms his way into Jesse's confidence, lighting a lengthy fuse on a powder keg of idol worship that will consume the lives of many men along the way.
Pitt, one of many credited producers, selected the least interesting role, though it is one that plays to the actor's strengths. Like Pitt, Jesse James was a celebrity. He bought into his fame, and fostered the worship culture that came with his legendary status. But beyond being an idol, there isn't much to Jesse for Pitt to flush out, and Jesse James rightfully becomes the Robert Ford story. Affleck, for his part, is perfectly pathetic in all the right ways. He has no distinguishing characteristics of his own, and absorbs most of James' mannerisms. His Ford has kid-brother syndrome -- though Dominik overdoes it when dumbing down poor Charley Ford and his crew. Rockwell is reduced to potted-plant status, but Affleck is mesmerizing, a wounded, dangerous, and proud individual wanting to measure up to a standard that exists in his own mind.
It's easy to single out, however, what Dominik could (and should) have sliced out. Jesse James wastes too much time wandering through the cursory interludes of supporting characters. Jessie's cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner
) and the lothario Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider
) receive lengthy vignettes that pull focus off the Ford-James relationship. We tolerate them at first, wondering how they will contribute to the larger story. They never do. What they establish is the film's underlying message pertaining to the absence of honor among thieves, though that concept is made perfectly clear in the film's opening conversations and doesn't need to be repeated ad nauseam.Kevin Costner
's bloated Wyatt Earp frequently comes to mind during Jesse James. Like Pitt with Jesse, Costner was enamored with the enormous legacy of his main character, but didn't have anything insightful to add about him. We are told a lot about Jesse James during the elongated run time -- too much of it through Hugh Ross's myth-enhancing narration -- but learn very little about the man at all.