“Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?” legendary outlaw Jesse James asks the increasingly fanatic Robert Ford, a remark that foreshadows the powerful, unforgettable film’s bloody titular event. In addition to crafting an exciting, colorful Western adapted from Ron Hansen’s 1982 novel, director Andrew Dominik also probes deep into the psychological spaces of its main characters, exploring issues that feel frighteningly relevant in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture.
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows clear influence from the art house Westerns of the 1970s, when directors like Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah helmed thought-provoking, well-received Westerns that challenged audiences and delivered far more than the violent, escapist, shoot-’em-up popcorn movies and one-dimensional characters that are often associated with the Western genre. In these films, there were no clearly defined heroes and villains, nor anyone with whom the audience could identify and root for. Similarly, “Assassination” is not easy to digest.
In a bit of inspired casting, Brad Pitt is handed a role that suits him perfectly. Pitt, an actor whose massive movie stardom often inhibits the audience from allowing him to fully sink into the character he is playing, meets his match in the film’s titular, real-life outlaw, whose fame and legend could easily give Pitt’s a run for his money. The audience’s perception of Pitt’s real-life, oversized persona works to his advantage here, and the result is nothing short of spectacular.
The film manages to demystify the typical, romanticized notion of the Western villain, as we see the initially charismatic man descend into complete madness as paranoia begins to envelop him. He seems to see his final hour coming, all too aware of his increasing lack of control and looking progressively more haggard. Pitt quite naturally conveys all James’ malice and violent power, creating a tension and extreme discomfort felt strongly by the film’s supporting characters and the audience.
That is not to say Pitt alone carries the film. Casey Affleck also delivers a strong lead performance as the film’s “coward,” 19-year-old Robert Ford. Affleck manages to create the perfect foil for James in the lecherous, determined Ford, who blindly idolizes James with a deep admiration that is innately childish. Affleck’s fascination with James was, after all, cultivated during his childhood after reading fantastic accounts of James’ adventures in dime-store novels, which were rudimentary, 19th-century forms of today’s tabloids. Ford’s so-called “cowardly” assassination of his hero is motivated by a fear for his own life, as well as a twisted belief that his murder of James will be seen as a great act of heroism that will give him the same level of notoriety. Not only does his feat fail to impress the public, however, but it also costs him his life, as he, too, is gunned down by an attention-hungry vigilante.
Both performances are complimented by the work of the supporting cast, which boasts accomplished actors like Sam Rockwell and Western staple Sam Shepard. Also noteworthy is Roger Deakins’ breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography, which expertly captures the beauty of the Midwest as a cold autumn turns into an even colder, lonely winter.