There is an errant gaze to Casey Affleck's Robert Ford that seems to dart around the screen — a perfect complement, or rather, a perfect contrast to Jesse James (Brad Pitt), whose unwavering, piercing stare holds minute wisps of madness and unshakable calm. These two titular characters are the yin and yang, a kind of new Old West dichotomy that rethinks the mythology and historical vagaries of a legendary outlaw and killer who was nonetheless a family man and fierce friend.
Andrew Dominic's adaption of Ron Hansen's 1983 novel is remarkable in its depiction of James's internal life versus his external one, even while its portentousness sometimes feels a bit staged. While the narrative is never told from James's perspective, his actions and behavior cast an ever-present moodiness upon every scene, and his almost schizophrenic manner of interaction is digressed upon by the narrator (Hugh Ross), who recounts James's personal quirks and features while speculating on his apparent impact on the lives of those men who surround him, including the impressionable young Ford.
Opening on a train robbery reveals the inclement storms of James's violent tendencies, which border on psychotic, as well as the good-natured friendliness which he sometimes displayed. He takes in Robert Ford, who ingratiates himself with James as a man who has followed James's career through pulp novels and newspaper scraps. Robert's brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is a dimwit who understands Robert's obsession with Jesse James even while mocking him for it — after all, Charley is as much a disciple of James as anyone. Along with the other spindly, ragtag scoundrels Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) and Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), the Ford brothers rely on James not only as a gang leader but as a personal icon, devotees of the legend of James and revelers in his reflected glory.
The film persistently queries the line between the media myth of James versus the actual man. The true Jesse James was hardly a western Robin Hood, despite some media accounts of his supposed largess, though he was not entirely the monster of penal lore either. Pitt performs the balancing act extremely well (as he has done with similar characters, such as Jeffrey in 12 Monkeys), showing paranoia-fueled outbursts and strange, almost elegiac pondering nearly side by side, constantly alert for betrayal, but emotive and playful at times.
Affleck blends stuttering shyness with boyish sincerity in a role that is really far more interesting than that of Jesse James. His journey from super-fan to intellectual betrayer is one largely propelled by the withering of Ford's own personal mythological understanding of James. As the two grow close, Jesse James seems to understand Ford better than he understands himself. During a moment of chiaroscuro-like clarity, James asks of Ford, "You want to be like me, or you want to be me?"
But this is contrasted with the somewhat heavy-handed portrayal of James as an icon of the West that detracts most from the film. Dominic seems intent on giving him a martyr's stare in certain long sequences, as if we're meant to sympathize and identify with his paranoid outbursts and small-minded meanness. He makes a mockery of his men, who placate him rather than become his enemy, but the sense of the film as a whole is that this is justifiable on all ends. James deserves praise for being the legendary outlaw, while his oafish men deserve their ridicule because they at least basked in his sunny dispositions when he was largehearted.
The film is masterfully photographed by Roger Deakins, though western cinematography is not especially difficult to make look incredible. The score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis is surprisingly sedate and not especially inventive. While it echoes their earlier work from The Proposition, it seems a feathery, fainter showing of their talents, and sometimes feels a bit stagnant and overused.
Dominic is to be credited for trying to make a western that plays by new rules and tells a different story. He does a wonderful job of keeping us interested. If he could cut down the running time and reduce the number of rugged Brad Pitt magazine cover shots, he might just have a dominating Oscar force on his hands.Powered by Sidelines