It’s Casey Affleck’s face you’ll remember. His expressions are crude oil: unrefined, shifting, impenetrable. His eyes and lips slide and scrabble for purchase on some honest display. As the coward Robert Ford, Affleck brings a quiet arsenal to bear on a man whose personality was as thin as prison gruel. By making Ford empathetic, he’s created one of the most moving and memorable performances in the Western canon. And in a film that’s only barely a western, no less.

But it is a Western, thanks to one of the genre’s defining anti-heroes, Jesse James. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (from now on just ‘Assassination’, thanks) embodies deliberately Western themes of honor and betrayal among men, but it’s something else as well, something even more deeply American.

In the small movements in Affleck’s face and in Brad Pitt’s watery eyes, Assassination reveals the collision between fame and reality, and the fallout when one inevitably gives way to the other. As a country, we idolize the celebrity like no other nation — the outré elevation of a charismatic outlaw to hero status wouldn’t be ‘American’ if we weren’t so good at it — and by examining the process with poetic brutality writer/director Andrew Dominick has created a classic of the Western genre, and by extension of Americana.

Based on the novel of the same name, Dominick’s film focuses on the last months of Jesse James’s legend. The James Gang, hounded by Missouri law and the Pinkerton Detective Agency, is in tatters. Frank James (Sam Shephard) heads out on his own, and Jesse (Brad Pitt) is increasingly paranoid and wary. Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell), a fringe member of the gang, brings his brother Robert along on a raid and Jesse inexplicably allows the misfit youngling to stick around. Robert grew up enthralled by pulp renditions of James Gang exploits, and his idolization of Jesse is thinly veiled.

The film does not indulge in a history lesson. You won’t hear of the James Gang’s Confederate roots in Missouri, nor of the nominally anti-union raids that brought early fame, or even of the particulars of a Pinkerton ‘investigation’ that made Jesse James a Southern hero with international infamy.

Instead it focuses on these two men. One, James, who has everything and is terrified of letting go, and another who wants everything James holds, and is willing to destroy him to get it. Though he occasionally breaks into one twitch too many, Pitt is almost as elusive and mythic as Affleck. His Jesse James is a man constantly ready to run, yet violently determined to maintain his own legend.

There’s a relationship here to Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy The Kid, the chase movie famously about a man who wants to be caught chased by one who doesn’t want to catch him. There’s also an obvious relationship to the films of Terrence Malick; to Badlands, which tracked the instant mythology of killer Charles Starkweather; and to Days of Heaven, from which Andrew Dominick and skilled cinematographer Roger Deakins draw evident visual inspiration. But this is no Malick clone. Dominick is more fascinated with the interactions between men than how those actions and a natural environment mirror one another.

Nevertheless, the camera roves lovingly over the Canadian plains with a patient grace rarely seen outside Malick. The footage is more subjective;  we’re led to believe that long glances at a field or sky are looking directly into James and Ford. And when the violence hits, Dominick lends it a thudding power, but strips away the romanticism of the tales Robert Ford loved. The film isn’t frequently violent, but it is brutally and frankly so. There’s no gloss on a man being shot in the back, other than the air of foreshadowing the first time it happens.

In light of Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful film that nonetheless may have permanently foregrounded the Western’s frequent latent homoeroticism, I’m afraid that some viewers might feel like they should be looking for overt man to man attraction. (Much as a handful sought gay male sexuality in Superbad, a film that’s as modern a western as they come. I’m only half joking.)

I suppose it would be easy for some to mistake the infatuation Robert Ford feels for Jesse James, the outlaw who was mythologized even in his own time, as romantic. Affleck’s glances are shrouded in a certain secrecy. Like the most sheltered virgin, Robert Ford is an empty vessel. And he wants so deeply.

Thankfully, Assassination doesn’t judge him for it, or for his following actions; he’s left to do that for himself. Nor does it applaud or castigate James for the self-conscious callousness with which he maintains his legend. It accepts both characters as inexorable by-products of one another, and Pitt and Affleck sell the relationship perfectly. Similarly, the film’s striking violence and grand beauty don’t comment upon one
another; they co-exist in a complex world that is slightly more real
than all but a few Westerns.

There will be some near-perfect scores given to this film, absurd as it might be to grade something so ethereal. I’m backing away from that precipice for one reason. I can’t always be certain of director Andrew Dominick’s intentions. This is the third high-profile film of 2007 to have been massively reworked in some fashion, and the after-the-fact manipulation is just as evident here as it is in The Invasion and Halloween. (How I hate invoking those two films here.)

The retooling is evident in the marginalization of the film’s two primary female characters, Zeralda James and Dorothy Evans, played by Mary Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel. Both are high in the billing, but both are almost unceremoniously silenced. I don’t think Mary Louise Parker even speaks until two hours into the film. Deschanel appears only in the last half hour. Both women have not insignificant historical roles, but Dominick, in leaving aside the history, appears to have realized only late that he has relatively little for them to do.

Other wonderful actors (Michael Parks, Ted Levine, Sam Shepard) are similarly pushed aside in this edit, though their presence lends the film credibility and charisma, just as do Parker and Deschanel.

Furthermore, the film left me with an important question. That is, to what extent is the narrator (firmly voiced by Hugh Ross), and therefore the film, meant to be reliable? I wonder this because we’re meant, to some extent, to see Jesse James as Robert Ford does, through a haze of adoring delusion created by pulp novels. But is the film much removed from those cheap tracts? Certain moments suggest so, but not consistently.

For example, in the narrator’s insistence that James blinked more than most men aired over an image of Pitt not blinking at all. Is he red-eyed trying to suppress his own nature, or are we being led? I wonder if the narration served one purpose originally, but was rebuilt as something else during post-production. The compressed ending – which relies more and more upon the narrator – suggests this, just as the opening suggests a lack of veracity. But the two are at odds with one another, and I’m left uncertain about which parts of the film to trust.

Even so, Assasination remains a wonderful success. To it you can apply descriptors like lyrical, effusive, dreamlike, and affecting. You know, those tags that push paying customers away faster than AIDS in a whorehouse. I can’t necessarily trust the film, but I do love it. The tale and its telling share many qualities with those of other Western misfits and contrarians, including Unforgiven, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid and Days of Heaven. But they also stand alone in this vision of a Western that is among the most unique of the genre and, ironically, one of those writ most large.

8.9 out of 10