Sometimes movies are epics because of the largeness of their vision. Other movies strain for epic status because of the slowness of their vision. At a very measured 160 minutes, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" lays out a relatively simple yarn in what often seems like real time, and the portentousness is not always indistinguishable from pretentiousness. This is a movie that very much wants to be a classic. Infuriatingly, every once in a while it manages to become just that.
The story begins in 1881 as Frank James (Sam Shepard) and his younger brother Jesse (Brad Pitt) prepare to stage a train robbery, which, as usual, they pull off handily. Frank afterward decides to pack in his 14-year career as a bandit and move East into anonymity, leaving Jesse to carry on with a ragtag gang that includes Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) and his brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell).
Even if you know nothing about Jesse James, the title of the movie gives the show away. The audience is placed in a position of omniscience – we know more than Jesse does about his fate and who will deliver it. He first sizes up the callow Bob by observing matter-of-factly, "You don't have the ingredients, son." But Bob, who religiously follows Jesse's exploits in the dime novels of the day, is so relentlessly adulatory that Jesse keeps him on as a kind of mascot.
What Jesse, despite his finely honed early warning system for danger, doesn't realize is that Bob's ardor has its flip side. He's the original obsessed fan. In his most clear-sighted moment, Jesse says to Bob, "You want to be like me, or you want to be me?"
The writer-director Andrew Dominick, adapting the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, mythologizes Jesse even as he brings him into focus as a sociopath. Seemingly invincible, Jesse basks in his status as a pulp icon and yet he is constantly on guard against the slightest whisper of betrayal. He's like a prairie version of the Joe Pesci character in "Goodfellas" – an innocent remark by a cohort inspires waves of paranoia. His greatest passion is for methodically hunting down those who have moved against him, and so there is a kind of black comedy in watching him steer his gang. No one knows when this grinning maestro will lash out. His gang goes to ridiculous lengths to placate him; they would rather be humiliated than dead.
Dominick and his cinematographer, Roger Deakins, frame the story in expansive tableaux that capture the mournfulness of the wide-open spaces. Equal attention is paid to the aural environment: This is the kind of movie where you hear every cricket. The film's narration also comes with its surfeit of grandeur. Jesse is described thusly: "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them, rain fell straighter, clocks slowed."
(It's not only when Jesse James is around that the clocks seem slow.)
Easing into the comforts of vice, chomping an expensive stogie, Pitt's Jesse sometimes appears to be posing for the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine. But Pitt is the best reason to see this movie. All his years of being a celebrity in the eye of the storm have no doubt worked to his advantage here. When Paul Newman played Buffalo Bill in Robert Altman's "Buffalo Bill and the Indians," he emphasized the yawning gap between the dime-book legend and the actual, ordinary man. Pitt convincingly incarnates the Jesse James legend while at the same time subverting it. Jesse's hair-trigger psychosis is not what we expect – not even from our antiheroes.
And yet Dominick understands that Jesse will forever rise above his killer in the public imagination. Affleck does a meticulous job of portraying Bob as a craven idolator. The fact that his killing of Jesse is inevitable does not detract from its power – it may, in fact, be the source of its power.
I wish this movie wasn't so purposefully elegiac and attenuated – at times it's like a middling Terrence Malick fantasia – but it's well worth sitting through. Grade: B+
•Rated R for strong violence and brief sexual references.