Epic and intimate, brutal and poignant, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” aims higher than practically any other American film this year and hits the target with aplomb. Arriving in theaters at the time of year when audiences are assaulted by overblown attempts at seriousness made in the hopes of winning awards, “Jesse James” is that rarest of birds — an art film with mass appeal.
Based on the novel by Ron Hansen, the film explores the dynamic between legendary Old West outlaw Jesse (Brad Pitt) and the young henchman (Casey Affleck) who would betray him. Opening in 1881, the glory days of the James Gang are well behind them. Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard) are forced to recruit young farmers to join them, and Bob Ford eagerly joins up, having obsessively followed Jesse’s exploits in dime novels.
As presented by Australian filmmaker Andrew Dominik, the film’s storyline seems closer to “I Shot Andy Warhol” than to Sam Fuller’s “I Shot Jesse James”: Ford is, essentially, a stalker, torn between emulating and worshipping his hero and then, when spurned, with destroying that hero. Echoes of everything from “The Talented Mr. Ripley” to “All About Eve” appear throughout the film, both of which are certainly unusual reference points for a Western.
A simple overview of the plot of “Assassination of Jesse James” can’t do justice to the film’s three-dimensional interpretation of its lead characters. Pitt — giving what is arguably his greatest performance — portrays Jesse not as an evil psychopath but as a hunted man, weighed down by the burden of living his double life. (James famously lived out in the open under the name “Thomas Howard,” even while he was the most infamous man in America.) In a more ham-handed telling of the tale, Jesse’s cruelty and paranoia would mark him as somehow deserving his fate; but as the old saying goes, is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?
Ford, also, defies easy parsing, thanks greatly to a wonderfully unpredictable and engaging performance by Affleck. “The more you talk, the more you give me the willies,” says Frank James about Ford, and it’s an apt description of the high-wire act that Affleck accomplishes here — Ford is pathetic and starstruck, yes, but he’s engaging and even tragic on a grand scale.
The acting is superb all around, with an ensemble that includes a host of accomplished contemporary character actors, including Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider (“Elizabethtown”), and Jeremy Renner (“Dahmer”). Mary Louise Parker, alas, gets very little to do, but she looks the part, transforming her features to embody a harder plains existence and squeezing every drop from her one big scene. Roger Deakins’ cinematography juggles our collective memories of the Wild West, of daguerreotype photography, and even of winter — there’s not a single shot in the film that’s less than gorgeous.
“You know what I expected?” Ford asks about his notorious act. “Applause.” While the murderer himself may never have received it, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” most definitely has it coming.