At its peak in the 1950s, the Western genre used simple, familiar tales to dig into devilishly complex thematic and moral dilemmas, a formula exemplified in the work of Anthony Mann (The Man From Laramie, 1955) and Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, 1956). Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford manages to do the reverse: The film’s convoluted plot produces a film as shallow as the dime-store comics utilized throughout its 160-minute running time. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1983 novel of the same name, Assassination follows the fraught relationship between the two bandits during the last year of Jesse’s life and tells of Ford’s wandering existence after doing the dirty deed.
The title suggests a narrative focus the film never achieves, as writer/director Dominik opts for maximum exposition. An apparent stickler for historical detail, the James/Ford relationship is often trumped by the respective roles of Wood Hite and Dick Liddle, late members of the James gang whose private dramas are sweated over at length. Having such respect for the past is laudable in amnesia-prone Hollywood (see the wildly inaccurate Jesse James of 1939 for the alternate approach), but Dominik does not find an economical way to dispense all the background information, relying heavily on voice-over to fill in the narrative gaps that his scenes leave yawning open.
Those tedious voice-overs are needed because Dominik’s style is poetic and detached; such studiously composed grandeur has no time for a notion as conservative as moving the story along. The clear model is Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, with its mystical appreciation of nature, the heavy use of voice-over, the distanced, mannered performances and even the casting of Sam Shepard (he was one of the leads in Days). But Malick’s film contains a story as old and pared down as the hills it shoots: the love triangle, a story simple enough to be inferred by the actors’ gestures, almost as if it was in pantomime. The narrative never distracts from the image because Malick finds visual ways in which to advance the plot.
Unlike Days of Heaven, Assassination never convincingly joins form and content; the complicated, almost journalistic plot is constantly at odds with the myth-making visuals. Such a form would be better suited to re-tell the legend of James, where the facts become less important than the impression of romantic outlawry. (Nicholas Ray wanted to shoot his 1957 The True Story of Jesse James as a ballad, entirely on stage, before the studio nixed the idea and chopped the resulting film to pieces). The film is most successful when reality is thrown aside, and frequent Coen Brothers DP Roger Deakins is good for a few grandiose stunners, including a beautiful tableau of James (Brad Pitt) posed in front of the steam emitting from a train he’s about to rob, and in the fetishistic way in which Pitt is shot against the frozen Canadian landscapes.
Pitt, who recently won the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance here, gives a brooding, uneven turn. Never digging much deeper than the tics the voiceover assigns to him in the opening montage (quotes taken directly from Hansen’s book), Pitt’s efforts toward hinting at the unstable personality beneath the blinking and defiant lip-licking fail to convince. More deserving of accolades is Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, whom the film depicts as an obsessed fan of James soon seduced by the celebrity that came with killing him. Affleck delivers his lines with a tentative, soft-spoken lilt, and hides a parasitic menace behind his moon-faced innocence; he’s an assassin who ultimately generates as much empathy as disdain. And in this he channels John Ireland’s similarly sympathetic turn as Ford in the greatest Jesse James film of them all: Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James.