Andrew Dominik’s remarkable The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford follows the induction of Robert Ford into the infamous James Gang and his dangerously close-range relationship with its leader. It is a sad and fascinating rendering of Ford’s ambivalent obsession with, ridicule by, and finally betrayal of the legendary outlaw.
The film presents the James/Ford narrative in a spellbinding haze of mythology and forensic historicism, a to-ing and fro-ing between the dreamlike and the documentary evoked by the use of sober narration with storybook sepia color-grading. We are looking at this story anew, but we are not beyond the myth yet. The use of narrowed focus in several sequences suggests both renewed scrutiny of a famous tale, while emulating the eye condition from which James reportedly suffered. The revisionist examination of the James myth offered here is provocative without being showy or cynical, and it is difficult for me to recall a Western so engrossing in its realism: we are watching the James Gang, we are watching Jesse James and Robert Ford.
This latter accomplishment clearly owes a great deal to The Assassination’s hypnotic, fully realized performances. Brad Pitt brings James to life as a dimly charismatic figure, both fact and phantasm, intimidating in his ability to project both inscrutability and brutish caprice whether they are genuine or not. Casey Affleck is undoubtedly the real star here though, and poignantly communicates Ford’s sense of his own inferiority alongside James, and his inability to believe (despite his fascination with similarities between them) that the two men are truly comparable. Both sinister and sympathetic, it is the kind of performance that one speaks of a film as “worth seeing alone for,” and hardly less than a triumph.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford isn’t for everyone: even with its rhythmic fluctuation between fear and banality, the film doesn’t always have the kind of scene-to-scene momentum that keeps viewers alert to the subtle significance of its portrayals. However, at least some of those who expect it won’t be for them will probably be surprised. At any rate, this reviewer found The Assassination an intricately nuanced picture sure to benefit from repeat viewings even though the initial one is a captivating, even overwhelming, experience. 4.5 / 5