The second half of the last decade saw the resurgence of the revisionist Western, made popular, and powerful, in the ’70s. There were a number of great Westerns and pseudo-westerns made – “No Country for Old Men,” “There Will Be Blood,” “3:10 to Yuma,” and “Seraphim Falls” were all excellent movies. But for my money, “The Assassination of Jesse James” was both the best and the deepest, offering a compelling, edge of your seat story while exploring the outlaw psyche and, best of all, offering a rumination on the cost and nature of fame that rings true in modern times. It’s also gorgeously filmed, marvelously acted, and masterfully directed.
Here’s my original review:
Jesse James is a tired, lonely man. Tired of robbing banks and trains, rich enough to settle down, he finds he has no friends. He’s worth an awful lot of money dead, but is an extremely hard man to kill. All the members of his gang suspect him of suspecting them of trying to collect on the reward, so they live in fear around him. When he does kill a former member of his gang, it almost seems like he’s doing the guy a favor — being shot in the back by Jesse James is all the poor guy can think about.
Every Western of this ilk has a band of outlaws, and every band of outlaws has one that seems more dangerous than the others; he’s possibly mentally ill, latently homosexual, pedophilic, or something of that order, invariably he’s carrying such a fierce rage within him that his eyes burn with the fires of hell. “3:10 to Yuma” had Charlie Prince, and “Tombstone” had Johnny Ringo. In “The Assassination of Jesse James,” every member of the gang seems like the unbalanced one, and you just wonder who’s going to cut whose throat first. No wonder Jesse James has to work so hard. He has to be the most dangerous, most unpredictable, most murderously unbalanced of all of them. It’s got to be exhausting.
Brad Pitt plays James as a man who gets tired of living, yet can’t figure out how to die. Nobody he meets can outdraw or outthink him. Even Nature refuses to cooperate; when he crosses a frozen river, he shoots holes in the ice with his pistol, but it doesn’t crack. Then along comes Robert Ford. He has read all the Jesse James novels, knows more trivia about James than his own brother. After spending a few days with this nervous, slightly shifty admirer, James asks him, “Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?” Apparently the latter, as Ford’s admiration soon turns — ripens, in fact — into a plan to murder him. From a certain angle it makes perfect sense: Ford absorbs all of James’ personality, including his death wish. And then he acts on that part. James lays down his guns, turns his back, and Ford shoots him. Game over.
The performance is a big step for Mr. Pitt. First, we knew he was beautiful, in movies like “A River Runs Through It” and “Legends of the Fall.” Then we knew he could play crazy, in “12 Monkeys” and “Fight Club.” Then of course he was smooth, in the Ocean’s movies. But this is the first time I’ve seen him play nuanced, tortured, dangerous, and sad. It’s by far the best performance of his career.
Casey Affleck is equally marvelous as Robert Ford. It’s been a good year for the younger Affleck; after this and “Gone Baby Gone,” he won’t have a hard time finding meaty roles in the near future. I was especially impressed by his ability to play a 19 year old; Affleck is 32, but he gives Robert Ford the bravado and insecurity that is so 19, thinking you’re grownup even when everyone else is still pretty sure you’re a kid.
The cinematography is forever intentional, and between the snow, the endless grey skies, the winter wheat, and the coldly lit interiors, one can’t help but think of older movies like “Days of Heaven” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” The direction defies the logic of the traditional Western (there’s only one shootout, it’s in the first thirty minutes, and it’s such a muddled mess you can hardly tell what’s happening) but keeps intact the spirit of the best of those old movies. Morality is still as hard and inevitable as the weather, and while you can resist it for a certain period of time, eventually it will take you. Action fans will complain that for most of the movie, nothing really happens. Their English major girlfriends will point out that everything is happening inside the characters.
The epilogue to the movie — after the assassination — could have been a movie of its own. A good movie, probably. Too bad grim, artsy films like this never get sequels. As it is, so much information (as well as thematic thundering) is crowded into the last fifteen minutes, you might forget about the two hours that came first. Those final moments are about the search for fame, the cost of the same, and the regret that comes later, but those things are not what the film as a whole is about. “The Assassination of Jesse James” is about a lonely man who finds a way to die on his own terms. It is powerful, brooding, moody, and one of the best films of the year decade.