The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Warner Bros.) revolves around a piece of casting so perfect it almost amounts to a stunt. Brad Pitt is every bit the exemplar of contemporary fame (the good deeds, the tabloids, the paparazzi), as Jesse James was of its 19th-century version (the bad deeds, the broadsheet ballads, the carte-de-visite portraits). And, like James, Pitt retains a haunted, inaccessible quality despite his absurdly overdocumented life. The mere phrase “Brad Pitt as Jesse James” makes for a kind of mini-reflection on the evolution of celebrity culture. It’s a shame that The Assassination of Jesse James, a moody epic directed by Andrew Dominik (Chopper) and based on the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, never goes much deeper than that tag line.
There’s one thing Pitt and James don’t have in common. Pitt is not, to all appearances, a barking lunatic, six-person family bed notwithstanding. James was: Accounts by his contemporaries stress his paranoia, egocentrism, and sudden fits of temper, and not least a propensity for shooting former colleagues in the back at the faintest hint of treachery. Dominik’s film opens in 1881 as the James brothers, Jesse and his cooler-headed sibling Frank (Sam Shepard), are planning their final train robbery outside Blue Cut, Mo. Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the 19-year-old younger brother of a member of their gang, shows up to beg for a role in the holdup. Frank shoos him off with a drawn pistol—a gesture that, in my own job-interview history, I’ve always taken as a “no.” But Bob Ford isn’t the type to scare so easily. In modern terms, he’s a stalker, a shameless hanger-on with a puppylike fixation on Jesse and a disturbing attachment to his box of James memorabilia. After the robbery, Jesse keeps him around as a gofer and general whipping boy, and the two establish a queasy rapport that will eventually result in the event of the title.
More than any character in cinema, Bob Ford recalls Rupert Pupkin, the wannabe standup comic who took Jerry Lewis hostage in The King of Comedy. And like Robert De Niro in that role, Casey Affleck goes for broke in a wonderfully brave and weird performance as the craven naif Bob. Somehow he makes us want to flee this creep at top speed, even as we pray no harm will come to him. Pitt is scary and charismatic as Jesse, and the supporting roles are superbly cast (Sam Rockwell is indelible as Bob’s brother Charlie), but the movie belongs to Affleck. In old-school Western tradition, the female roles—Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife, Zooey Deschanel as an exotic dancer who befriends Bob—are nearly nonexistent.
The Assassination of Jesse James commits one of the most woeful sins of the literary adaptation: way too much voice-over. The superstitious Jesse, the movie tells us while showing vast prairie skies, “read auguries in the snarled intestines of chickens.” Really? Well, don’t just tell us about it: Let’s see some disemboweled fowl! Ron Hansen’s prose, as adapted by Dominik, is often lovely, but the script’s reliance on narration robs the film of its best opportunities to tell the story simply, through images. Thanks to Roger Deakins’ cinematography, those images are beautifully composed, but a blurred-edges effect meant to evoke period photography feels contrived. Self-conscious mythmaking of the kind this movie undertakes is always a dangerous enterprise. The Western—including the postmodern, twisted, we’re-way-beyond-Westerns-now kind of Western—is a genre that’s been so thoroughly explored that, like the gangster movie, a new one better have a damn good reason for existing.
It feels strange to wish for more from a movie that’s three hours long, but the segment following James’ death, in which the Ford brothers tour the country with a vaudeville re-enactment of the murder, seems hurried and tacked-on. Dominik might have done well to trim some of the scenes of raunchy camaraderie among the James gang to concentrate on the enigma of the film’s central dyad. For all the time we spend in their company, we leave with little sense of what Bob and Jesse’s motivations are, and without giving away the plot, I can state that some of the choices they make are pretty bizarre. “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” Jesse asks his worshipful tormentor at one point. What the distinction is between those two desires—or by what path either one would lead to a compulsion to kill—is a question that The Assassination of Jesse James, for all its ponderousness, leaves frustratingly unexplored.