As titles go, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a bit of a mouthful. Evoking the flowery rhetoric of the time, it reads like a headline from a newspaper that was partial to the James Gang during its ransacking of the American heartland back in the 1860s and 1870s. And the words "assassination" and "coward" hint at deeper, political meanings. How Jesse James, a farm-boy outlaw who admitted to 17 murders and probably committed a few he didn't admit to, became an American legend, right up there with Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, is one of the great ironies of our blood-stained history. Weren't people repulsed - good, decent people, anyway? Regardless, James' life, after his death, took on a life of its own, fueled in part by an invention that was right around the corner: moving pictures.
Movies have come at Jesse James from every conceivable angle, but The Assassination, which stars Brad Pitt as the blue-eyed psychopath, may have found a new way in - through the back door, so to speak. Based on a 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, it turns our attention to Robert Ford, "The Man Who Shot Jesse James." Toward the end of his short life, James was a marked man, worth more dead than alive, even to the members of his own gang - what was left of it, anyway. But someone had to actually pull the trigger, and Hansen's book derives some poetic justice from the fact that that someone was Robert Ford, a nervous little guy who'd worshiped James as a kid. That's right, folks, Jesse James, one of our first celebrities, was also one of our first victims of a celebrity stalker.
One thinks of Mark David Chapman, whose admiration for John Lennon turned sour, then curdled even further. And Casey Affleck, who plays Ford, does an impressive job of revealing the contradictory thoughts that might have floated through Ford's mind: adoration and detestation. A hanger-on whom James may have kept around because he enjoyed the flattery, Ford tried to ingratiate his way into the James Gang. And there's a delightful scene, early on, where his charms, such as they are, fail to work on Jesse's older brother, Frank, whom Sam Shepard imbues with just the right amount of snake venom. The movie, which includes only one robbery, is about the last days of the James Gang, when Jesse was succumbing to paranoia. With a price on his head, he tended to shoot first and ask questions later. He even slept with his gun.
You can see why Pitt was attracted to the role. He's a bit of a celebrity himself, and he must have identified with a guy who got swallowed by his own legend. Pitt's performance has some heft to it; he casually dominates whatever scene he's in. But he can't really summon up the kind of lethal charm that must have made Jesse James such a frightfully fascinating person to be around, and that robs the movie of some dramatic impact. So does writer-director Andrew Dominik's reluctance to pursue the political angle hinted at in the title. A Confederate soldier long after the Civil War was over, James may have used his Southern leanings to justify stealing from all those Northern fatcats, but Dominik isn't particularly interested in that angle. He's more interested in the sickly glow of fame, the way it both dazzles and frazzles the minds of those who gaze upon it.
A note on the cinematography: Roger Deakins has done it again, found isolated moments of stark beauty in the American hinterland. When snow falls, it drapes the countryside like a shroud. And the steam pouring out of a locomotive helps light up the night, turning the whole world into a shadow of itself. The movie's on the long side, but with Deakins behind the camera there's never a dull moment.