"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Dennis Harvey October 2, 2007

The other day a magazine you probably never heard of — before they pulled this clever attention-getting stunt, that is — created a list of “the world’s most overrated people, places, and things.” Based on a scientifically verifiable combination of media profile and snark, it put the Beckhams on top, with “Oprah’s heart,” “sex with virgins” and “pandas” among the goodies below.

Not doing too shabbily at #4 (right between Botox and sexual predators) was Brad Pitt, possibly one of the less controversial choices.

Why? There are many reasons one could name. Brad Pitt always looked like a model. Brad Pitt seldom gives more than a room-temperature performance. We’re all sick of Brangelina (though not nearly as sick as we are of the Beckhams).

He’s certainly not the first, or worst, movie star to get by pretty much on looks alone. But he’s possibly the biggest one to do so. Now that he’s aging his looks are getting a little more character, and he’s showing more regular interesting in acting his way out of that dang paper bag. But really, his huge popularity and its longevity are way out of synch with the degree to which Brad Pitt has ever been, you know…interesting.

Yet we echo this overrated edict only to challenge it. Frankly, the timing is off, because Brad Pitt has just done something inconvenient: He’s given a very good performance, easily his best leading one, in an equally good movie.

Not everyone is going to agree: There’s been a notable gap between critical yea- and naysayers regarding “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” More than a few eyes rolled when he won an acting prize at the Venice festival. I think the latter reaction is mostly snobbism — ginormous Hollywood stars are not supposed to wrest such awards away from toilers in the foreign-language arthouse realm — but can understand why some don’t like the movie.

They invariably accuse it of being as pompous and windy as its title. To be sure, this is nearly three-hour film that doesn’t hurry anything. There’s a deliberateness of pacing that seems synched to its historical period’s rural life, where any nonwork time was just spent a-settin’ — no text messaging or iPod to fill every idle moment with stimuli. Roger Deakins’ widescreen imagery is big, stark, implacable. The music is by Nick Cave (with Warren Ellis), and you know that doesn’t signal a rollicking good time.

In a short-attention-spanned mood, or if writer-director Andrew Dominik’s (“Chopper”) approach simply rubs you the wrong way, “Assassination” will indeed play as a self-indulgent bore. But slow your rhythms down to its idiosyncratic beats-per-minute, and you’ll get a striking, authentic-feeling epic that’s often rivetingly tense in the wide open spaces between dialogue and action. After all, much of the movie consists of terse tete-a-tetes between characters fully aware that one might draw and blow the other to smithereens at any moment.

The film begins at the end of the notorious James Gang’s 14-year career, with one last 1881 train robbery. Nearly all the original crew is dead, and elder surviving brother Frank (Sam Shepard) wants out. This leaves the future of the already heavily mythologized “gang” in the hands of Jesse (Pitt). He’d rather be home with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and kids, but can’t stop running from the law — or settling scores with those he suspects of double-crossing him.

Among the associates the James brothers have had to take on in recent years are various dumb wannabes attracted by the outlaws’ fame — none more so than 19-y.o. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). That 19th-century fanboy gushes that he’s read all about their “adventures” in cheap popular tomes, swallowing every word even though such chronicles were usually about as fact-based as a Grimm Fairy Tale.

With his whiny, wheedling, weasely manner, Bob is the kind of runt everybody likes to kick around, because they know he’s the kind of braggart and flatterer who backstabs as easily as he breathes. He is, in short, a scheming little shit — the kind that survives better men. At first his transparent sycophancy amuses the hero-worshipped Jesse. But that doesn’t last long, and once jilted Bob turns into The Little Pain That Could.

Paranoid that former comrades might have plotted against them, Jesse is tireless in tracking down and “executing” such perceived threats. When the list of the living has been whittled down to Bob and his more genial older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), it’s a question of which side will shoot first.

Of course, there’s no real question. The title gives away not only what happened but the prevailing public attitude afterward toward Ford, who was widely decried (even in popular song) as a coward for shooting romanticized “rebel” Jesse in the back — even if the latter was a wanted robber and sociopathic killer. The film’s long, fascinating coda charts how James continued to haunt, even dominate Robert Ford for the rest of his own (also violently ended) life.

“Assassination” has the feel of a grandiose, slightly grand-guignol ballad — the kind Nick Cave sings — come to illustrated life. It’s full of dread, long silences, sparse words, wintry landscapes, and sudden violence. The warm legal world of most Americans in a no-longer-so-Wild West is one the main characters here can sometimes visit, but never truly belong in. They are marked men — by each other as well as the law.

In a terrific cast (Shepard and Rockwell are in particularly good form), Affleck gets incredible expressive mileage out of the kind of character usually relegated to supporting-jerk status — Bob Ford is the real protagonist here, and it’s a measure of the performance that by the end we actually feel sorry for this incorrigible little sneak.

As for Pitt (who also produced the film), he’s alert as never before in a complex, ambiguous role. Jesse James here isn’t merely good, bad, or somewhere in between, but a possibly psychotic mix of intelligence, instinct, and intense emotions that can turn on a dime. He’s most calmly in-charge — almost Zen — in the moments before a kill, which he often prolongs as if savoring the wait. Pitt played a serial killer long ago in “Kalifornia,” but that was just posturing. This is a chameleonic performance that both illuminates Jesse James and leaves him where he’s always been, a magnetic cipher in American folklore.