The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is somewhere between a history lesson and a thoughtful campfire tale, but without the romanticism this suggests – the outlaws here are real men, flawed, prideful, often inarticulate. This is not to say that the film is dry; its players may mumble their words, but the film has a quiet lyricism. It’s simply gorgeous, portraying autumnal tranquility amid shifting fields of golden grain, or the wailing spectre of a train through the night, or the charcoal sparseness of a dark landscape engulfed by snow.
The actors do an equally good job, with titular leads Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) competently capturing the complex, troublesome, doomed relationship between two men, simultaneously comrades and rivals.
The Assassination of Jesse James is powerful but imperfect. Director Andrew Dominik is primarily interested in pondering those men’s motivations and evoking a twilight, elegiac atmosphere of finality, but the details of the narrative are critical to understanding the men’s bond and are regrettably hard to follow. A slow pace is necessary to the film’s tone, but it is overlong in parts, suggesting the bloat that derailed Dominik’s follow-up, last year’s Killing Them Softly.