Those with memories of an idealized Jesse James as played by Tyrone Power in the 1939 film are in for a vastly different — but satisfying — experience with this latest cinematic incarnation of the famous Western outlaw.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (Warner Bros.), based on the novel by Catholic author Ron Hansen, is an unusual and compelling dramatization of the circumstances that led up to the 1882 shooting of the notorious bandit, played here with impressively mercurial mood shifts by Brad Pitt, who also produced the film. Calm and charming one moment, he's laughing maniacally the next.
His killer would be Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a junior member of Jesse's own gang, who at the film's start longs to be part of the group, like his older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell). He had grown up idolizing Jesse, with treasured dime novels of his exploits kept under his bed.
The 19-year-old Robert, or Bob as he's mostly called, is brushed off as little more than a pest by the other gang members, including Jesse's brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), who's about to retire from a life of crime. But Bob's persistence eventually wins over Jesse, who takes him in and allows him to be part of the Blue Cut train robbery, and afterward to help him change houses.
Jesse's glory days are pretty much behind him, and the robbing of that train — on which he shows great brutality in handling the sympathetic official guarding the safe in the luggage compartment, is his last robbery. Thereafter he lives in anonymity under the name Thomas Howard, a churchgoing man with a wife (Mary Louise-Parker) and two small children.
But his presence is still formidable, and the gang members, including Jesse's cousin, Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), womanizer Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), and Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), still live in fear that Jesse might get wise to any treachery. (Jesse's interrogation of a quivering Miller at one point is superbly played.)
Always aware that his life might be in danger, Jesse seemed to have a sixth sense about when to change houses and move on. But as fate would have it, he was gunned down while dusting a picture on his wall, unarmed at that fateful moment.
Writer-director Andrew Dominik tells the story intelligently and at a controlled pace with penetrating close-ups of his excellent cast — Affleck is particularly outstanding — to probe psychological motivations. Did Bob envy Jesse? Did he wish to become Jesse? Had his admiration turned to anger? Was he afraid of him? Was he just after the reward money?
The film, though speculative, lets you contemplate every angle, as well as exploring the nature of celebrity and hero worship, and far from ending with Jesse's fatal shooting, the film goes on to chronicle the vaudeville re-enactments of the crime performed by Bob afterward.
The violence is relatively restrained by today's standards, and presented with an admirable realism devoid of glamorization. The lingering death of one shooting victim is strikingly different from the "bang, bang, you're dead" mode of so many films.
There's a moral gravity to everyone's actions here, and even some spiritual reflections, as when Jesse ruminates on life "on the other side."
The film unfolds at a leisurely 160 minutes, but should reward those not expecting a standard Western shoot-'em-up.
The film contains some crude language and profanity, innuendo, a nongraphic sexual encounter, several shooting deaths with blood and scenes of physical violence, suicide, and brief rear male nudity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.