- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2007

The name Jesse James most likely conjures images of Wild West shootouts, robberies and dark dealings, but “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (based on Ron Hansen’s eponymous 1983 book) isn’t so much an action flick as a delicately rendered character study.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik’s cinematic portrait of the great American outlaw shows what James’ final paranoid months might’ve been like and just how an upstart nobody named Robert Ford became part of his trusted entourage, only to gun him down in his own home. It’s a slow and sauntering exploration of fame and infamy, idols and aspirations.

The year is 1881, and Jesse (Brad Pitt, also one of the producers) is 34. He’s still running heists with his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), yet he’s becoming increasingly mistrustful of those in his gang, who he suspects may double-cross him in exchange for the bounty on his head.

There are those who still flat-out worship the legendary outlaw, however — like 19-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the kid brother of James gang member Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell).

“Bob” is desperate to become Jesse James’ right-hand man, and he’s got a shoe box filled with memorabilia and clippings to prove his devotion. There’s something off about him, though. His speech is erratic, his eyes shifty and his face forever twitching. Should this man not get the acceptance he craves, one senses, terrible things may happen.

Gradually, Bob Ford earns his way into James’ inner circle, but soon realizes that life with the legend doesn’t match the glorious dime-store novel version;James has an unpredictable violent streak and an almost God-like power over his men, able to summon and discard them at will.

Ford eventually takes one too many of James’ actions personally and, like a spurned lover, decides to sell out his idol. His chance to bring down the fastest gun in the West arrives when James, short on men, conscripts the Ford brothers for another robbery.

As the days before the caper tick by, tensions mount, and everyone’s eyes begin to betray fear and suspicion. It becomes clear that someone will not survive. In a bizarre unfolding of events, that someone is Jesse James, who inexplicably (suicidally, perhaps) lets his guard down, giving Bob Ford the perfect shot.

Moviegoers will have to reach their own conclusions about why Ford pulled the trigger (and why James allowed himself to be so vulnerable at that moment) based on the facts presented here, but it clearly seems to be some combination of jealousy, hurt, self-defense and the all-powerful quest for fame (which, by the way, backfired, with Ford going down in history as a “coward”).

The film makes excellent use of lyrical third-party voice-over, fuzzy-edged shots that have a storybook quality, and glimpses through old-fashioned, uneven panes of glass.

All of these underscore questions within the film about perspective. Whose eyes are we looking through? Can we (and the characters) really make out an accurate picture of what’s transpiring? Does legend sometimes cloud the truth?

The actors are excellent, particularly Mr. Affleck, with all his tics and expressive facials, and Mr. Pitt, who immediately reminds us that he’s not just Mr. Angelina Jolie, international celebrity, but a tremendous talent capable of morphing into something else entirely.

Here, he becomes a tightly wound bundle of dynamite loosely encased in a calm, contemplative wrapping — dangerous and surprising.

A strong supporting cast makes the proceedings all the more pleasurable, including Paul Schneider as slimy womanizer Dick Liddil and Mary-Louise Parker as Mrs. Jesse James.

For those who enjoy the literary tone and the lengthy musing on what makes a legend, this film is likely to stand out as one of the best of the season so far.

*** 1/2

TITLE: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

RATING: R (strong violence and brief sexual references)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Based on the book by Ron Hansen.

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes

WEB SITE: https://jessejamesmovie.warnerbros.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS.

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