Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” tells the story of one of America’s most infamous outlaws, a fearless robber who, thanks to a sympathetic press, became an unlikely folk hero. As cunning as he was elusive, the leader of the notorious James Gang artfully dodged the authorities for years until one of his trusted accomplices, Robert Ford, murdered him. Dominik’s film captures the details of their saga in exhaustive but fascinating detail, and though it features sporadic bursts of brutality, it is neither sensational nor cartoonishly biased.
While James is portrayed at times like the charismatic rebel outlaw whose exploits were sold to the public in lavishly embellished fashion by the Kansas City Times, he is just as much an enigma, tortured by demons barely masked by his cavalier persona.
Brad Pitt captures James’s complexities with a performance fueled by nervous energy, depicting him as a paranoid man rarely comfortable inhis own skin when he’s not robbing trains or surrounded by his children.
As Ford, Casey Affleck is a worthy foil. Tripping over every syllable and unable to hide his desire to be Jesse James, he is constantly trying to prove himself, to transform himself into a mythical hero every bit as loved and admired as his idol. He is the jittery outsider who desperately wants in, overcompensating for his inadequacies with a fiery temper. When he finally takes James down, he is, like so many assassins with delusions of grandeur, making his own bid for fame.
As such, it is a resounding failure. Ford, as the title makes plain, was branded a traitor and a coward; James, the foremost celebrity of his day in life, became even more luminous in death. But Dominik is less interested in casting their bittersweet ballad as a typical Old West showdown than in presenting a character study. Ever patient, he lets the story breathe, but rarely does he let it drag. Every quiet scene serves as a calculated prelude to an act of shattering violence that, despite its inevitability, loses none of its force.
He doesn’t stop there. While the assassination of James is the climax of a tale that relies more on tense verbal sparring than gunplay, leaving us to decipher the subtext of every exchange, Dominik meticulously chronicles the aftermath of the shooting. It is a telling choice. Rather than vilify Ford — tempting, no doubt, given Affleck’s convincing turn as a shifty-eyed wannabe — he offers him an inkling of 11th-hour redemption.
Was Robert Ford a coward? Was Jesse James, a Missouri native, the rugged Robin Hood of the Old Midwest? It’s not that simple, really. As “The Assassination of Jesse James” makes clear, media-fueled myths are made to be debunked, rooted in history rewritten so often it bears little resemblance to the truth. The movie tells the story of two men caught in a struggle worthy of a Greek tragedy, but what makes that story so compelling isnot their differences, but the way their cutthroat ambition drives them hopelessly, fatally together.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ***½
Starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard
Directed and written by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes