Having idolised notorious outlaw and train-robber Jesse James (Pitt) all his life, wannabe Robert Ford (Affleck) tries desperately to ingratiate himself into the James gang. However, given that the gang aren’t quite what they once were, Jesse is growing increasingly erratic, paranoid and haunted, leading him to question all those around him. Pushing Ford once too often, Jesse unwittingly sets in motion his own destruction…
Generally speaking, critics loved the overly-titled Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford but audiences didn’t take to it – and it’s not difficult to see why this was the case. Slow, meandering and melancholic, it’s a far cry from the shootout-filled depiction of a Robin Hood-esque gunslinger many viewers were probably expecting. No question, Andrew Dominik’s second feature is occasionally gripping and often exquisite on a number of levels (Nick Cave’s atmospheric score, Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography), but it’s undoubtedly in need of a trim. So overlong and long-winded that even the title is overlong and long-winded, many scenes are intentionally drawn out at the expense of audience engagement, while even Dominik admits that his movie has a story but no real plot.
Of course, these are side-effects of the film’s epic, impressionistic ambitions. Like Dominik’s stunning debut Chopper, the movie is concerned with a notorious criminal who’s something of a celebrity, but importantly The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is a much more existential experience. Boasting a poetic quality reminiscent of philosophical auteur Terrence Malick, it’s a ponderous and somewhat mesmerising film about mortality, death, adulation and – to a certain extent – fame. While Brad Pitt offers a notably brilliant performance as the dangerous and increasingly unpredictable legend Jesse James, Casey Affleck is unquestionably the best thing about the movie, offering a twitchy, nuanced and compelling turn as the other titular figure.
Which is why, unfortunately, it’s so frustrating that Dominik spends so much time elsewhere trying to flesh out all the supporting players. Don’t misunderstand, the likes of Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider and a pre-fame Jeremy Renner are strong, but the generous screen-time afforded to them means that both Pitt and Affleck are off-screen for large portions of the movie (the former especially). Plus, while it’s admirable that Pitt helped the director get the film made the way he wanted and reportedly ensured that the studio couldn’t shorten the title (it’s adapted from a book you see), doesn’t this leave us with something of a spoiler?
Long, ponderous and intentionally drawn-out, the overly-titled Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford isn’t the movie audiences will be expecting. It is, however, a striking, poetic and atmospheric work, which is occasionally gripping and often exquisite.