It happened with regularity in the '70s, but every once in a while, a major studio accidentally produces a work of art like The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford—a dark, iconoclastic Western that lacks clear heroes and villains, tucks its only shoot 'em up sequence in the opening reel, and closes on a note of profound ambiguity and regret. In look and tone, it recalls moody revisionist Westerns like McCabe & Mrs. Miller and The Shooting, but with a special attentiveness to the natural world that's closer to Terrence Malick. But perhaps its closest antecedent is Walter Hill's underrated Wild Bill, another story of an outlaw who had the misfortune of being a legend before his death, thus inviting fame-seekers to strike him down. Both films derive a sick sort of tension from the inevitable, as their paranoid anti-heroes wait for an end that they seem to know is coming.
Much like writer-director Andrew Dominik's fine debut feature Chopper, which filtered real events through the self-inflating memory of famed Australian sociopath Mark Read, The Assassination Of Jesse James both respects the James legend and brings it back down to earth. As it opens in September 1881, the diminished James gang, led by Brad Pitt's Jesse James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), has been forced to trust some dubious characters in order to pull off what would be its last train robbery. Among them are the Ford brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck), the latter a quiet, shifty 19-year-old who bows to no one in his idolization of the notorious gunslinger. Though clearly uneasy with the kid's gnat-like presence—at one point, he asks, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"—James keeps him around until the bitter end.
The word "coward" comes from the disgraceful manner in which James was shot—in the back, while hanging a picture—but The Assassination Of Jesse James suggests that just being in the outlaw's presence in those final days required a great deal of courage. Though restless and paranoid, Pitt's James never for a second lacks control over every situation; even his death feels more like conscious resignation than a moment of weakness. Pitt's subtle work—relaxed and confident, yet seething with quiet menace—is complemented beautifully by Affleck's enigmatic Ford, whose admiration for (and fear of) James distinguishes him from a run-of-the-mill scoundrel. Picking up after the derring-do that made James famous, the film limits itself to his decline and fall, so its tension comes entirely through the mysterious tête-à-tête between its two central figures. Their uneasy alchemy gives The Assassination Of Jesse James a peculiar and destabilizing tone that's far from the standard Hollywood oater, but entirely fitting for two larger-than-life characters fulfilling their roles in history.