A review of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: R for strong and graphic violence

Run Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

 

 

Long stretches in the dark with Brad Pitt are typically a good thing and Andrew Dominik’s moody reflection on the private life of America’s most notorious outlaw is no exception.

Pitt is flat-out magnificent as the psychotic Jesse James, a Southern loyalist cum guerilla in a Civil War without end. Pitt inherits the sheer lunacy of James; eyes lit with the fire of ethical vacancy and speech breathy with the cadence of madness.

The James Gang is on a roll, pulling off a staggering number of lucrative stage, bank and train robberies. There’s not a man alive who doesn’t want Jesse’s head as the essential trophy and young Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) is head of the line. As baby brother to James Gang member Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) the whiney sycophantic Bob has a provisional “in”. He wheedles his way into Jesse’s inner circle and studies the legendary madman like a blueprint.

The narrative is measured and thoughtful with a ruminative voice-over filling in the details of James’ background (suffers from granulated eyelids, lung disease) and state of mind (merry, moody, fey and unpredictable). As the gang gradually splinters loyalties are called into play and betrayals runs rampant.

Dominik’s approach veers left of the run-of-the-mill shoot-em-ups and turns to a refreshingly artful treatment of character study and personal relations based on fear and greed. The screen crackles with energy when Pitt is on-frame, his cup of iniquity filled to the brim and spilling over with vicious intent. Paranoia springs eternal, from the weight of criminal celebrity and the eternal knowledge of being wanted with a capital W.

Affleck is a refreshing surprise, a creepy, obsequious star-gazer with a hidden agenda. Rockwell is superb as is the entire supporting cast of cowboys and villains – Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, etc.

Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins films his 19th century American plains expansive and haunting; Nick Cave’s eerie soundtrack corresponds to the mood. Tension is unbearable thanks to lingering, thespian-heavy tactics. Only the last act fails to spark by attempting to put an exclamation point on Bob Ford’s isolating notoriety.

Capricious, meditative and absorbing.