Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker. Rated R.
Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford tells the story of one
of America’s most infamous outlaws, a fearless robber who, thanks to a
sympathetic press, became an unlikely folk hero. As cunning as he was elusive,
the leader of the notorious James Gang artfully dodged the authorities for
years until one of his trusted accomplices, Robert Ford, murdered him.
Dominik’s film captures the details of their saga in exhaustive but fascinating
detail, and though it features sporadic bursts of brutality, it is neither
sensational nor cartoonishly biased.
While James is portrayed at times like the charismatic Rebel
outlaw whose exploits were sold to the public in lavishly embellished fashion
by the Kansas City Times, he is just as much an enigma, tortured by demons
barely masked by his cavalier persona. Pitt captures James’s complexities with
a performance fueled by nervous energy, depicting him as a paranoid man rarely
comfortable in his own skin when he’s not robbing trains or surrounded by his
As Ford, Affleck is a worthy foil. Tripping over every
syllable and unable to hide his desire to be Jesse James, he is constantly
trying to prove himself, to transform himself into a mythical hero every bit as
loved and admired as his idol. He is the jittery outsider who desperately wants
in, overcompensating for his inadequacies with a fiery temper. When he finally
takes James down, he is, like so many assassins with delusions of grandeur,
making his own bid for fame.
As such, it is a resounding failure. Ford, as the title
makes plain, was branded a traitor and a coward; James, the foremost celebrity
of his day in life, became even more luminous in death. But Dominik is less
interested in casting their bittersweet ballad as a typical Old West showdown
than in presenting a character study. Ever patient, he lets the story breathe,
but rarely does he let it drag. Every quiet scene serves as a calculated
prelude to an act of shattering violence that, despite its inevitability, loses
none of its force.
He doesn’t stop there. While the assassination of James is
the climax of a tale that relies more on tense verbal sparring than gunplay,
leaving us to decipher the subtext of every exchange, Dominik meticulously
chronicles the aftermath of the shooting. It is a telling choice. Rather than
vilify Ford – tempting, no doubt, given Affleck’s convincing turn as a
shifty-eyed wannabe – he offers him an inkling of 11th-hour redemption.
Was Robert Ford a coward?
Was Jesse James, a Missouri
native, the rugged Robin Hood of the Old Midwest? It’s not that simple, really.
As The Assassination of Jesse James
makes clear, media-fueled myths are made to be debunked, rooted in history
rewritten so often it bears little resemblance to the truth. The movie tells
the story of two men caught in a struggle worthy of a Greek tragedy, but what
makes that story so compelling is not their differences, but the way their
cutthroat ambition drives them hopelessly, fatally together.