Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)


(director/writer: Andrew Dominik; screenwriter: based on the novel by Ron Hansen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editor: Dylan Tichenor/Curtiss Clayton; music: Nick Cave/Warren Ellis; cast: Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James), Paul Schneider (Dick Liddil), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Zooey Deschanel (Dorothy), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), James Carville (Governor), Hugh Ross (Narrator), Michael Copeman (Edward O’Kelly, Ford’s assassin); Runtime: 160; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Brad Pitt/Dede Gardner/Ridley Scott/Jules Daly/David Valdes; Warner Brothers Pictures; 2007)

“Stylized like a Ken Burns documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 40-year-old New Zealander Andrew Dominik (“Chopper”) directs this grim, overlong and psychological Western that’s stylized like a Ken Burns documentary, with an ongoing narrator (Hugh Ross). It’s based on the acclaimed 1983 historical novel by Ron Hansen. The filmmaker attempts to reinvent Jesse James, as he unleashes unsentimental nostalgia to debunk this popular myth of the American West with his specious take on the Jesse James assassination by the Judas figure of Bob Ford. Sam Fuller shot the same tale more judiciously as a Western noir in his low-budget 1949 I Shot Jesse James, having Jesse killed in the first reel by the insolent nobody Bob Ford and then focusing on Ford’s painful celebrity without boring the viewer to death with questionable takes on the story.

It opens in 1881, in a woodland clearing somewhere in the Ozarks (shot in Midwestern Canada), and paints a portrait of backwoodsman folksy rancher Jesse James (Brad Pitt) as the 34-year-old legendary bandit, murderer and former Confederate guerrilla who is living a drab life under an assumed name with his wife Zee (Mary-Louise Parker) and kids when tracked down by the 19-year-old celebrity-stalker and fan-boy misfit Bob Ford (Casey Affleck). Jesse will soon afterwards pull his last hold-up before he will be assassinated in his cottage while hanging a picture seven months later on Palm Sunday, in 1882, by the cowardly Bob Ford trying to assert his manhood with the gun Jesse gave him as a present. The train robbery was pulled off with Jesse’s sneering older brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and a band of hired goons and low-life morons. One of the gang of misfits is Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Robert’s older easy-going brother.

The cigar smoking nutty and vain Jesse sits on his porch in his rocking chair cutting off the heads of snakes while regaled by hearing his past criminal exploits told by the hero-worshiping Bob Ford and neither agrees with nor denies the stories. Through the years sympathetic newsmen and dime novels by pulp writers have made the James brothers into heroic anti-Reconstructionists and glorious populist Robin Hood figures while overlooking their brutality and criminality, and this film aims to straighten things out a bit as it cannibalizes a celebrity culture.

Aside from the curious feel of the film, it unearths no secrets or better understanding of its shady characters or the American public’s hunger for celebrity or does it have a hold on what’s the truth. The over-conceptualized film is pretty to look at but as empty as the beautiful wide-open spaces it so expressively depicts (which is not meant to be necessarily a pejorative comment, but just reflecting on the film’s unique way of filming). But it’s prevented from greatness or reaching a greater audience because it turns into a slow slog through iconic events that are far too familiar and have been done too many times before to feel special here. There was even one film, the 1921 “Jesse James Under the Black Flag,” that had Jesse’s son portray his father and tell the saga as a true story.

What makes this film stick in your craw as something noncommercial, artistic and special, is the compelling wounded mood it sets, its elegant grandeur and the engaging twisted performance by Casey Affleck (his whiny character takes over the film’s third act after Jesse is shot and he becomes the eyes through which we view the myth until he also is killed by a nobody overwhelmed by celebrity; it comes after Ford performed the infamous act on stage for some 800 performances and is now a saloon owner). These strengths of showing these craven characters as just small men and not heroes outweighs the film’s heaviness and funereal tone and inability to nail down who was the real Jesse James.