The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), directed by Andrew Dominik, stars Brad Pitt (Jesse James), Sam Shepard (Frank James), Casey Affleck (Robert Ford), Sam Rockwell (Charley Ford), Mary-Louise Parker (Zee James), Jeremy Renner (Wood Hite), Brooklynn Proulx (Mary James), and there's even Nick Cave with a guitar performing in a bar. Cave wrote the soundtrack too, which I willingly confess makes me all kinds of happy. The movie is based on the novel of the same name written by Ron Hansen.
The story is a known one. While dusting of a picture, Jesse James gets shot in the back by Robert Ford, hence the epithet of coward — you shouldn't shot people in the back. It's just bad manners.
"Can't figure it out — do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?" says Jesse James to Robert Ford — and that's kind of the rub right there.
I have to say I didn't expect something quite this big and stunning at the outset, but there's a reminiscence here of the way the landscape always plays into the really good western movies, like it was a character itself. There are wheat fields and forests and farms and the stark and stunning visuals come across almost like the faded sepia prints of the turn of the century photographs that can make even the most drab face seem interesting. None of the faces here are even remotely drab.
I can't help thinking of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), but I think that's mostly because of Sam Shepard and because I had that same straying thought there about photography and how stylish something as simple as a white shirt and black vest can seem when set starkly against a backdrop of fields and the strange desolation of pre-modern times.
During the period depicted here burgeoning media coverage is creating strange celebrities like the outlaw Jesse James, and Pitt seems like the perfect choice for a part that deals with that, considering his own public persona.
I'm kind of a sucker for the visual, and this movie delivers. There's also a lot more to the performances here than you might expect. I seem to recall that there was some speculation as to whether or not Pitt could carry a leading role the way this demands, having been stuck with his pretty boy reputation for a long while. He can and he does. Casey Affleck also gives a great performance as the sycophantic wanna-be sidekick whose treacherous affection turns sour the minute reality clashes with his ideas as to what the relationship between himself and Jesse James should be.