At two hours and 40 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James
may be the world’s first epic of misguided hero worship. The film begins when its titular coward, Robert Ford (Affleck), shows up at the camp of legendary outlaw Jesse James (Pitt), circa 1881, looking for a job. Like all the best oater crews, the James gang is populated by a colorful, oddball collection of characters: unshowered men with crooked teeth, eclectic vocabularies, and a coarse yet innocent preoccupation with the female anatomy. But even among such a motley band, it’s Ford who’s the most unnerving. Gaunt and diffident but with an enormous chip on his shoulder, he grew up savoring tales – some tall, some true – of James’ life outside the law and, like any obsessed fan, came to view his own value in direct proportion to his proximity to the thing he worshipped. Unfortunately, he’s joining the band long after their salad days are over. Instead, he’s just in time for the “Macbeth days,” which are defined less by high adventure and bank robberies than James’ creeping paranoia; like the Scottish king before him, he begins hunting down and polishing off members of his crew before they can engage in any treachery. Into such intrigue walks Ford, who practically oozes treachery and isn’t above lying, betraying, or murdering to stay in his hero’s good graces – even if it means lying to, betraying, and murdering his hero. Written and directed by Dominik (Chopper
), The Assassination of Jesse James
grabs on to many of the classic tropes of the Western – the meandering passage of time, the imposing landscapes, the abiding loneliness, the casual violence – and sets about mapping their furthest edges. With a dark and subtle visual style, Dominik shows what kind of havoc wide-open space and the constant threat of unnatural death can wreak, both on one’s mind and one’s body. No one in the movie is entirely right in the head, least of all James, whose rapidly disintegrating sanity provides Pitt with his juiciest role since Snatch
, one he chomps in to with all the relish of a guy who’s been playing suave leading men for too long. Dominik’s concern isn’t with drama’s traditional peaks and valleys (if it were, he would have come up with a different title); he’s more interested in mapping the social galaxy that revolves around James, a galaxy of a thousand planets, each with a story and each a key to a tradition of heroic thievery that will soon be nothing but a corpse on a table and a legend in a two-bit dime-store novelette.