By David Hohwald
Jesse James rides up on a black horse, guns drawn, with a grin on his face. He robs the train, gets the girl and rides off into the sunset.
This is the typical view of James, but in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik completely turns the convention of the James myth around by offering a dark, tormented look at the last days of the famous and infamous outlaw.
However, this movie is just as much about the man who killed him and why he did so.
This study of the nature of cowardice through the death of James has many great aspects, but several serious flaws keep the movie from reaching greatness.
Any movie about James requires a certain degree of charisma in the role, and Brad Pitt brings that charisma in spades here. His rendition of the bandit is full of confidence at times, but lurking beneath there is the subtle paranoia that plagued James’ last days.
For each moment where Pitt has a twinkle in his eye, he matches it with a silent wringing of his hands, or he fiddles with his cigar. All of this brings more depth to the character than anyone has done in the past, including Colin Farrell most recently.
Pitt makes the first of the two title characters both larger than life and surprisingly human, a difficult task that he achieves with masterful skill.
Equally talented is his counterpart Casey Affleck in the role of the James-devotee turned assassin. Affleck brings a sense of inner turmoil to the screen that makes the viewer both loathe and sympathize with Robert Ford.
In the side roles, there are some great performances by the under-used Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother and Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller, but for some reason, Dominik under-uses Mary Louise Parker. As a whole, the acting is amazing and is certainly the strong point of the film.
“The Assassination of Jesse James” also features some great cinematography. From blurring the screen to lush winter landscapes, the movie conveys the world of an outlaw as a cold and bleak existence. The shot of James’ final train robbery at the beginning of the film is the antithesis of a cowboy Western, but watching the train move toward the ambush in the dead of night brings chills. Comparisons to Terrence Malick’s style are apt, and that is definitely a good thing. By using unsaturated colors, Dominik also brings the viewer into a world that is less glamorous than one might have thought.
All of this serves the greater purpose of the plot of the film, which is given in the title.
That being said, “The Assassination of Jesse James” explores both whether or not Ford was a coward for killing James and why he did it. The movie is really an anti-Western – a character study of a rogue outlaw falling into obscurity and paranoia and the man who loved the myth of James that was dying out.
However, the slow nature of this revelation brings up the film’s massive flaw: its length. This movie is nearly three hours long and loses the viewer at several points by becoming side-tracked by characters other than James and Ford.
This seemingly minor flaw could be overlooked in a 90-minute movie, but these jaunts are a major factor for the film’s nigh-unbearable length. It is hard to recommend seeing this in the theater simply because it is almost a chore to watch. As is common in many movies, too much length goes hand-in-hand with mediocre editing.
Some of the omniscient narration moments could have been cut with virtually no loss to the plot, and the aforementioned side-tracking should also have been left on the editing room floor.
All in all, Dominik’s realistic look at James’ last days has all the makings of greatness: a good concept, a fully realized thematic vision and amazing performances.
Anyone who is a fan of dark takes on the West should see this, but this is not worth anything but a rental due to its poor editing and length.