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As overlong and pretentious as its title, The Assassination of Jesse James is worth a look almost in spite of itself. More an arty meditation on celebrity and envy than a Western, the film tells the story that led to its title at a languid, expansive pace; from a train robbery that introduces murderer and victim to James’ final tense moments in his living room, dusting a picture on the wall with a gun pointed at his back.
Putting the dramatic climax in the title establishes immediate dramatic tension, but it all drains away with the film’s inexorable pace. Writer-director Andrew Dominik frequently pauses the action for poetic narration (the film’s origins as a book are all-too-clear), and allows every character to sigh and stare significantly into space before speaking. Each scene goes on a solid two minutes longer than necessary, and in such a rambling story, some plots feel entirely unnecessary. Dominik almost seems to be working against his moving story, gorgeous cinematography (from multiple Oscar-nominee Roger Deakins) and fine performances, and the film becomes more of a deflated balloon than the firecracker it deserved to be.
To be fair the story behind the assassination of Jesse James is complex and interesting enough to deserve a full telling. After the glory days of his robbery career with his brother Frank (Sam Shepard), James (a mercurial and mesmerizing Brad Pitt) rounds up local scalawags and two-bit hoods to pull off his schemes. One of them is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), who grew up idolizing James and, with a leg up from his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), worms his way into James’ inner circle. In the meantime, James confederates Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) are plotting against him, mostly out of a fear that Jesse will get them before they can get him first—the leader has grown paranoid in middle age, and is constantly hunting down potential traitors. When a quarrel between Dick and Wood finds Wood on the wrong end of a gun, the noose of the law closes in on the Fords and the others, forcing Robert to accept a plea deal: he can go free if he kills Jesse James.
Ford and James are the linchpin of the film, but each gets lost in rambling narrative. Affleck and Pitt play well off one another in their many scenes together, but when they are absent, the film deflates entirely. Pitt is a brilliant casting choice as the reluctant celebrity James, using his charisma as a weapon while simultaneously grappling with the difficult life infamy has wrought. But Pitt is stifled beneath the obtrusive narration, which does so much telling of what’s going on in James’ mind that he never gets a chance to show us for himself. We get the feeling Pitt is giving us a lot more than the film will let us see, and Jesse becomes a kind of phantom, a fascinating character constantly out of reach.
Affleck also shines as the slippery, insecure Ford. He seems quite familiar in the role of the younger brother never taken seriously and never given the chance—and, given the career of brother Ben, maybe he’s speaking from experience. But Affleck is more than a baby-faced ingénue; his Ford is genuinely scary and unpredictable, particularly in the final half of the film. Robert adores Jesse but also resents him, and Affleck excellently straddles that fine line between admiring a celebrity and wanting to become—or destroy—him.
Supporting male roles are also filled out well, from Shepard’s brief appearance as the elder James to Rockwell’s people-pleasing Charley. As Jesse’s long-suffering wife Zee however, Mary Louise Parker is criminally wasted; she gets literally four lines, all in the vein of “Supper’s ready!” Even her keening wail over Jesse’s dead body could be done by anyone with a heightened sense of the histrionic. It’s a baffling casting choice—is there a richer character left out somewhere in the editing?—and adds significantly to the sense that there’s a better Jesse James lurking in the overly-expansive frame of this flawed but interesting film.