The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

For a movie that has sat on a shelf for two years gathering bad buzz, this quiet wow of a Western sneaks up as one hell of a satisfying surprise. Artfully exciting and compulsively watchable even at a butt-numbing 152 minutes, the film makes good on the promise New Zealand writer-director Andrew Dominik showed with Chopper in 2000. Brad Pitt totally nails it as Jesse James. He just picked up the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival, and damn if he doesn't deserve it. Pitt is built to reveal Jesse as the tabloid celeb of his day (1881). Living at home with the wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and kids under the alias Thomas Howard, when he's not out robbing trains with brother Frank (Sam Shepard) and the gang, Jesse is one sick puppy, an insomniac given to psychotic f lare-ups and shooting enemies in the back. It's an irony that his biggest fan, the whiny nineteen-year-old hanger-on Robert Ford (the terrific Casey Affleck matches Pitt step for step), is the instrument of his doom. Adapting Ron Hansen's 1983 novel, Dominik paints a richly detailed mosaic on locations in Calgary and Winnipeg, and you can only marvel at the visual miracles achieved by cinematographer Roger Deakins. But it's in the scenes after Jesse's death, when Dominik pits truth against legend, that this intimate epic shows its teeth.

From The Archives Issue 1036: October 4, 2007