With a mouthful of a title that hints at the length of the film itself, this will, depending on your mood, hypnotize you or bore you to death.
Writer/director Dominik, adapting Ron Hansen's historical novel, takes his cues from the work of Terrence Malick and creates a meditative look at the uncertain relationship between famed Western outlaw Jesse James and a young member of his gang named Robert Ford, whose hero worship of James slowly transforms into... something not clearly specified.
As Jesse James, Brad Pitt has the showier role, but the film really belongs to Casey Affleck and his subtly cracked performance as Ford. There is great meaning in Dominik's casting (or, rather, in producer Pitt's casting of himself): Pitt's iconic Hollywood hunk status is echoed in the mythical fame that James enjoyed both in life and death; Affleck's struggling underdog is made all the more poignant by the actor's own career overshadowed by his older brother Ben. (Ford's similarly goofy brother Charley is played in the film by the redoubtable Sam Rockwell.)
Dominik himself has chosen the perfect follow-up to his first film, the Australian crime movie Chopper, which also examined a violent nutjob whose notoriety masked a hollow persona. Roger Deakins's stunning cinematography and a distinctive soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis add to the film's evocative Midwest atmosphere.
The pacing does take its own sweet time, with Pitt especially eager to stretch out every pregnant pause until its snapping point. And yet my interest never flagged. James is such an unpredictable character that somehow, even though you know by the title what ultimately happens, much of the film holds a quiet suspense, especially in scenes between the paranoid James and the stewing Ford.
The story leaves much to be desired, however. Of course we all know that Jesse James is a legendary figure of the Old West. But why, exactly? How did people see him while he lived – was he the Charles Manson of his time, or the Robin Hood? Was he hated, loved, feared, envied? The film only touches on his fame in the form of some Jesse James dime novels that Ford keeps in a box under his bed (in one of several allusions to Ford having a homoerotic fascination with James) and in some scenes that take place after James's death – which, in my opinion, are the most interesting in the film.
But any good story needs to convince its audience, no matter how familiar they are with the main character, of who that character is, and why he's important. The Assassination of Jesse James doesn't quite deliver on that level – nor does it really explain Robert Ford's arc from twisted fan to resentful assassin.
Dominik seems assured enough in what he's doing for me to accept that it was a conscious choice to keep the souls of James and Ford shrouded in mystery. But that leaves it up to the two actors playing the men to tell us who they were. Affleck gives us a glimpse, but Pitt – who isn't bad – makes do with a few evil stares and psychotic giggling. If Jesse James was merely a cold-hearted murderer, and Ford merely a lonely loser with delusions of grandeur, it could well be argued that we don't need to sit through three hours of movie to reach this conclusion. Still, I liked the film.