The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Sam Shepard
Director: Andrew Dominik
Available on: Amazon Prime
A bewitching doubleheader forms the centre of Andrew Dominik's glowering, elegantly constructed masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a Western that, in spite of its familiar milieu, is light on gunfire and heavy on the interplay between its named duo. Each slow and deliberate step towards the sombre conclusion comes laced with its own peculiar significance. It is in those singular moments that an undoubtedly captivating meditation on the ephemerality of fame and mythos comes alive.
Occupying the eponymous roles, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck turn in a pair of deeply complex performances, at once distinctive and enmeshed. Theirs is a relationship built on an unrequited devotion that, inevitably, devolves into something marked by bitterness, loathing and treachery.
Pitt mesmerises as legendary outlaw James. By the film's opening, his reputation is fearsome and established, a string of atrocities, dating back to his time as a Civil War bushwhacker, mere notches on his belt; he is a figure known across the land. "All America thinks highly of me," he claims, not inaccurately.
Jesse is the charismatic soul of a now largely rag-tag band of criminals, headed up by his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard). Pitt's depiction is of a man comfortable in his own skin, ready with a yarn and a raucous laugh, yet plagued by paranoid notions that linger visibly beneath the surface. His cold gaze and watchful air disorient his associates, convincing them of some preternatural gift for discerning disloyalty.
By contrast, Affleck twitches, grimaces and smirks Robert Ford into being. A put-upon junior sibling without any discernible charms or abilities, 'Bob' is possessed, nonetheless, of a deep reservoir of entitled petulance, convinced that he is "destined for great things". His is a profoundly unsettling presence, tolerated by family but repellent to many of those he encounters. In Affleck's charge, the character vacillates between forms: malcontented teenager and sly provocateur. When he eventually gives into the sudden, cold, matter-of-fact violence that constitutes a fact of life in the gunslinger underground, he greets it, jaw slightly ajar, with contented acceptance.
As performances go, it's nothing short of fascinating. "I don't know what it is about you," says Shepard to the tyro babbling at his elbow, "but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
Jesse, however, seems tolerant of the youngster, whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the James gang's exploits, drawn from newspaper cuttings and dime novels, matches a fervent regard for its most famous member. When Bob's brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), is brought into the James fold prior to a big score, Bob wonders if his chance to excel has arrived. Thrown together, he and Jesse establish an uncomfortable union. The older man needles his follower's obvious insecurities for amusement's sake and undermines his naive assumptions, moulding a dogsbody, not a protégé, someone onto whom he can cast delusions and animus.
And it is in this abrasive dynamic that Jesse seals his fate – and that of his killer. Belittled too often, his assumed greatness undiscovered and unappreciated, Bob breaks from the hopes for a future spent at his hero's side and clutches for glory. In doing so, their fates intertwine.
The titular event itself becomes unavoidable. Dominik plays up its strangeness, executing the sequence with almost peaceful elegance. It is ripe, too, with complicity on the part of the victim, a player in a game only he understands. Even as circumstances overtake him, Bob grasps the extremes of his situation; Affleck's skill is to convey turmoil and smug pride in the same instant.
Beyond the core narrative, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford retains its power. Jesse roams the countryside, checking on his erstwhile comrades' fealty and sniffing out rumours of betrayal and bounties. Dominik girds this wandering existence with the aid of a beautifully delicate score, courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, and Roger Deakins's peerless cinematography.
From the snow-scarred vastness of the American interior, and the golden haze of endless cornfields, to the blurred and dreamlike frames that Deakins introduces intermittently, the film's aesthetic is an outright triumph. Indeed, the exhilaration of an early train robbery, conducted in the gloom of a Missouri night and illuminated by the warm glow of the silhouetted assailants' lanterns, previews what is to follow.
In spite of the leads' omnipotence, an outstanding supporting cast is afforded space to shine. Rockwell is typically brilliant as good-natured Charley, whose cheeky spirit eventually gives way to hobbling sadness, while Jeremy Renner's Wood Hite is an old confederate boasting a ruthless streak and the ability to hold a grudge. His conflict with fellow bandit Dick Liddil – played, with lascivious charm, by Paul Schneider – amounts to a key element of the overarching story.
Elsewhere, Garret Dillahunt stands out as a lonely, dimwitted farmer, who may or may not have snitched on his fellow fugitives, and an unsmiling Shepard crafts a grizzled gunslinger far more able to weather the storm of a changing world than his odd younger brother. Credit must also go to editorial assistant and voice actor Hugh Ross, who narrates the tale in clipped, graceful tones.
An extended coda illustrates life after Jesse. It suggests that Bob did indeed gain the renown he sought, along with the kind of wearied maturity that might have otherwise served him well. Yet, there is a fine line between acclaim and infamy, one that is impossible to define. In craving the former so desperately, Robert Ford's footwork proved too clumsy for comfort.