It's a baffling caprice of the zeitgeist to have two studio Westerns released just weeks apart. James Mangold's better-than-competent and highly crowd-pleasing 3:10 to Yuma has provided a harmonica fanfare for something more ambitious. Written and directed by 40-year-old, New Zealand-born Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a deeply, unsentimentally nostalgic movie — but nostalgic for what, exactly?
Unlike, for example, 1972's Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, a soggy, autumnal affair in which the James brothers appear in the guise of tattered, mystical quasi-hippies, Dominik's film isn't revisionist; nor, as in Mangold's movie, is Dominik's desire revivalist. Gritty but mythic, a dirty Western with clean shirts, oblique in some ways and obvious in others, Jesse James is a bold, even wacky, reinvention. This is a psychological chamber drama in which the wide-open spaces are geographic as well as mental.
Unfolding mainly in the aftermath of the James Gang's last holdup, the movie concerns the paranoid relationship between charismatic Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the Judas who will murder him. They meet at a woodland conclave where the gang is planning its final train robbery. This creepy young kiss-up gives Jesse's brother Frank (Sam Shepard) the willies. "You want to be like me or you want to be me?" Jesse asks Bob, fixing him with his clear, psychotic, gaze. (The question jumps out of the narrative: Pitt may have won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, but the movie belongs to awkward, whiny Affleck.)
Unlike Sam Fuller's 1949 I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget Western noir in which Ford is portrayed as a stubborn fool, Jesse James presents the assassin as an aggrieved fan. Inexplicably tolerant of Bob, Jesse seems to invite martyrdom; he presents him with a new six-shooter. The actual shooting, on Palm Sunday, has a ritual, preordained quality. Afterward, the narrator notes, "a thousand people would make the spellbound pilgrimage to the cottage" where Jesse breathed his last.
The relationship between crime and celebrity clearly interests Dominik; his only other feature, Chopper, was a visually strident and powerfully absurdist portrait of an Australian career criminal — the self-dramatizing author of nine autobiographical best-sellers, one titled How to Shoot Friends and Influence People. That's more or less an ironic description of Bob Ford's fate. A year after shooting Jesse, he's re-enacting the deed on a New York stage, condemned to relive his crime until, inevitably, he's dispatched by another irate nobody.
Jesse James was shot largely in Canada, but there's something suggestively Australian about the way the movie dramatizes empty space and loneliness. Full of slow dollies and haunted close-ups, this is a film of Rembrandt lighting and Tarkovsky weather. The sun pours down like honey, and Vaseline limns the lens. The skies shimmer with onrushing clouds; the fields dance with waving brown weeds, for which Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have provided a suitably spacey score.
Although not as radically defamiliarizing as Jim Jarmusch's avant-Western Dead Man, Jesse James has the feel of an attic ransacked for abandoned knickknacks. There's the sneaking sense that Dominik might have preferred to shoot the whole thing through a pinhole camera. But then, as demanding as the movie is, maybe it's just old-fashioned crazy.