COURTESY WARNER BROS.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," stars, clockwise from left, Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller, Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil, Jeremy Renner as Wood Hite, Sam Rockwell as Charley Ford, Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, Sam Shepard as Frank James and Brad Pitt as Jesse James.
‘James’ proves a rich Western tapestry
Apparently, some legends need additional polishing. "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" was shot some years ago and then taken out to the woodshed for additional editing. That's not usually a good sign, particularly since the film still runs nearly three hours, and director/writer Andrew Dominik's only previous credit is an obscure prison-life meditation made in his native Australia.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"
Opens today at Consolidated Kahala
But this is nearly three hours spent in 1881. The film's attention to detail and frontier lifestyle is so meticulous that "Jesse James" does what costume dramas do best when firing on all cylinders: transport you into the landscape of the past and, even more, into the minds of those long dead. You'll either sink wholesale into this magnificently mounted elegy to the American past, or you'll squirm in your seat, awaiting the inevitable gunshot of the title.
Do we need to explain who Jesse James was? Murderer, robber, daredevil sociopath, Jesse and brother Frank were the semicompetent members of the notorious James-Younger Gang that terrorized the Midwest during the anything-goes period following the Civil War. The James boys, wearing the mantle of unredeemed Confederates, were lionized by anti-Union newspaper editors in Kansas City who were deliberately trying to create a modern Robin Hood.
By 1881 most of the old gang was dead or imprisoned, and even Frank James lit off for anonymous respectability. Jesse had to scrape the bottom of the barrel -- and it's a pretty shallow barrel -- for enough ne'er-do-wells to comprise an outlaw band. Closest to him were brothers Robert and Charley Ford, a couple of rank losers.
By all accounts, during the final months, Jesse became morose, depressed and viciously paranoid, trusting no one and perhaps even murdering old gang members he suspected of cooperating with the authorities. He should have paid closer attention to the old saw about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer, for the Fords conspired to kill Jesse James, and did so when the opportunity arose.
They confessed to the murder, expecting a reward, and instead were sentenced to hang, which must have been a surprise. The sentences were commuted within two hours by Missouri's governor, however, and they did get a divvy of the reward money. There is good reason to believe that the Fords were acting as governmental assassins.
But there was no glory in the murder of a bad man, especially one who was a pop-culture hero, and the Fords eventually came to dismal ends.
This is all the stuff of legend and has been written about and filmed countless times. The film is based on a well-researched '80s novel by Ron Hansen, from which much voice-over narration is lifted. That's usually the sign of a screenplay too timid to stray from its literary sources, but it works here, for the film is structured as if the events were classic Greek tragedy, in which the destinies of man are buffeted by the vagaries of Fate.
Whoa! That's a pretty heavy load for any film to drag around, and "Jesse James" does so by recalling the great, daring and introspective westerns of the 1970s, films like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Heaven's Gate" and "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid." The recipe calls for overwhelming landscapes, an enormous sky -- as if heaven were crushing down -- a peculiar, drifting way of marking time, sudden outbreaks of horrific violence and, in particular, a sense of crushing loneliness and estrangement. It is modern anomie projected onto a restless, slippery historical reality.
"Jesse James" does it well, even the too-clever touches like establishing shots created as if they were made with an 1800s pinhole camera, or the rustic slang that nudges into poesy. It's a big, sprawling, elegiac and intimate western, perfect with the harsh details of life when there weren't many psychological barriers between man and God. Although filmed in Canada, many of the Missouri scenes catch the forest-and-field topography of the border state.
That's all fine dressing. The heart of the movie is the edgy relationship between Robert and Jesse, and Casey Affleck does a superb job of essaying a pathetic loner torn between admiration and fear of his hero. As Jesse James, Brad Pitt creates one of the iconic performances of this American badman -- jolly, brutal, a family man, a sociopath. He has a supernatural sense of which way the wind turns, and knows he can't control it. Jesse James' only choices are to go down or to go down fighting. At what point does a man hang up his guns?