Looming over any retelling of the oft-told Western is the specter of cliché. But from its opening, wide-angled views of the Missouri plains, it’s clear that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a distinct entity. It walks like a classic cowboy movie but talks like a graphic novel, possessing the former’s baroque mythology but the latter’s revisionist empathy for the marginal.
Brilliantly embodied by Casey Affleck as an emotionally brittle sycophant, Robert Ford first approaches Jesse James with the wild-eyed appreciation of a comic-book fanboy: a sort of deluded Mark David Chapman stalking a mid-19th-century John Lennon. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Jesse James in his final days seems neither fully convincing nor complete; he relies instead on his own celebrity to act as a stand-in for the outlaw’s assumed charisma.
The film’s aesthetic approach is one of refraction. Like the distortions of the prominently featured old window glass, writer-director Andrew Dominik shifts the film’s point of view with an artful incrementality within the sprawling narrative: Ford’s childish worship of James warps into vengefulness, and James’ back-slapping camaraderie stiffens into the brooding paranoia that characterized his final days.
Invoking the narrow-shouldered marginality of the men who later killed Lincoln and Kennedy, Assassination continues the rebuttal that began with other anti-westerns like The Left-Handed Gun and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Without achieving their subversiveness, it nevertheless advances a more explicitly plausible narrative of self-preservation and self-involvement as the most enduring features of the American West.
Opens September 21