The opening 30 minutes introduce us to the gang and would-be member Ford, who pleads and charms his way into the gang’s farewell train robbery, filmed notable with no music or thematic screams, but creaking floorboards and cocked revolvers.
But between this point and the mark of James’ murder, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford paces itself, sometimes ignorantly, as its laborious middle section kills too much time with secondary characters when the outlaws’ relationship is what director Andrew Dominik’s screenplay and title (adapted from Ron Hansen’s novel) promises to track.
Nearly all 100 minutes of this static second act give us time to ponder James question, “Do you want to be like me or do you want to be me?” which he poses to a flirtatious-eyed Ford. There’s a scene where Robert’s older brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), amuses yet stiffens James on Robert’s knowledge as a youth of the celebrity’s shoe size. Robert takes over, his star-struck child getting the best of him as he rattles off comparisons between himself and James: “You have blue eyes; I have blue eyes. You're five feet eight inches tall. I'm five feet eight inches tall…”
We might suspect Ford loves James, or at least lusts for him. The Assassination… relies on the push-and-pull of the experienced Pitt and escalating Affleck, the bullying James (with 17 murders to his sheet) and pouty Ford. These are the best scenes, their quiet dialogue serving both as chess and tag.
The Assassination…, like recent westerns, rides on atmosphere, here inspired by Terrence Malick and produced by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who earned an Academy Award nomination and likely win. Also beneficial to the film is the novellic narration by Hugh Ross, who had a small role in 1994’s Wyatt Earp.
So even with a muddled middle, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, with its powerful performances, gorgeous camerawork, and bittersweet finale, is hard not to recommend—let’s just hope it’s not another seven years for Dominik’s next film.