The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a marathon neo-western from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, could have been a classic. There are traces of a masterpiece interspersed throughout the overlong two-and-a-half hour run time. The problem lies not in the quality of the content, per se, but rather the sometimes-excruciating pace at which the story unfolds. Sometimes minutes fly by unnoticed. Other times, especially as the film builds towards the climactic murder, every second lingers, and time slows down to a stop. Add to these pacing issues a monotonous score that tends to make each scene blend together into a haze of tedium and you have yourself a movie more likely to bore its viewers to sleep than leave them satisfied as the credits roll. These flaws, and a few others, keep The Assassination of Jesse James, a story brimming with potential and a number of genuinely beautiful moments, from achieving the levels of transcendent excellence it aspires to.
The Assassination is the sad, languorous tale of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and his famous demise. The narrative stretches from several months before his death to several years after, but the majority of the story positions itself between Autumn 1881 and April 3, 1882, when Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) shot the outlaw in the back of the head. As the film opens up, the James Gang faces extinction. Only two of the original members, Jesse and his brother Frank (Sam Shepard), are still alive, the rest hunted down either by the authorities or by privately contracted Pinkerton detectives. In order to stage one last robbery, hijacking a train in the woods of Missouri, the brothers enlist a group of local yokels with little actual criminal experience. That’s how the Ford brothers ended up in the services of the James gang. Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) is a full-fledged member of the posse, but it’s his brother Bob who has the real outlaw ambitions. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of Jesse’s exploits and a vaguely creepy obsessiveness, Bob becomes a polarizing figure; he gives Frank James the willies, but Jesse doesn’t seem to mind the fawning youth. After the robbery (which is truly mesmerizing, almost worth the price of admission by itself), the gang splits up. Jesse starts to grow more and more distrustful of those around him. The famous bandit is sick, prone to violent mood swings and increasingly paranoid. He interprets news of strife amongst his former accomplices as evidence of treachery against him, and doesn’t hesitate to punish would-be conspirators. Meanwhile, after a couple of less-than-congenial meetings, Bob begins to turn on his one-time hero, and starts to resent his legend. “I’ve been a nobody all my life. And as far back as I can remember, Jesse James has been as big as a tree.”
The casting of Brad Pitt as Jesse James may be one of the most inspired creative decisions made on the film. Pitt shares with James the same sort of colossal fame and name recognition, and is certainly subject to a fair share of Bob Ford-type admirers. He lends both his patent charisma and a frightening brooding quality to Jesse James. The performance is one of Pitt’s strongest. The real standout, however, is Casey Affleck as Bob Ford. He’s able to turn what is initially little more than geeky, doe-eyed admiration into an uncanny malevolence that becomes more and more apparent as time goes on. The transformation he undergoes over the course of the film is breathtaking. Of course, the changes both titular characters undergo would have probably been even more impressive had they not been spelled out incessantly by an entirely
unnecessary narration. The dull, droning voice of actor Hugh Ross delineates most of the movie’s major plot points, and describes exactly what each person involved is feeling at all times. Every once in a while, the narration adds a certain amount of texture to the story, but mostly its just plain obnoxious. Writers are told over and over again to show rather than tell, and in film this adage is especially true. Why not let the actors’ performances speak for themselves? While the pacing issue is the movie’s most obvious flaw, it’s the voice-over that is most damaging. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a somber reflection on celebrity worship and the corrosive properties of notoriety. An undeniably talented cast and crew managed to create some remarkably resonant moments amid what is a generally meandering artistic exercise. The sorrow that pervades the actual assassination is absolutely stunning, making it one of the most spellbinding scenes captured on celluloid in some time. Had Andrew Dominik exercised some directorial restraint, and been able to sustain the gripping, atmospheric quality of the movie’s best moments, we could have been witness to something special.