In 1881, the gang led by brothers Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) James was faltering, their fame spreading far and wide but leading to paranoia within their ranks. In fact, the James brothers were the sole surviving members of the original gang, and though they continued to carry out robberies the psychological strain was beginning to take its toll on them. Thirty-four-year-old Jesse had a family, but his two children did not know what their father did or why they had to move around the country so often, and he was the centre of a growing Robin Hood-style legend. Then entered nineteen-year-old Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) into his life to enhance that...
The Jesse James story has been a source of fascination for American cinema ever since westerns were invented, and many of the depictions of the man portray him as that folk hero that Robert Ford starts this film believing him to be. But trust an Australian to see through all that outlaw glamour and present him as something probably closer to what he was: dangerous, psychopathic yet charming. With director Andrew Dominik's script, based on Ron Hansen's novel, Pitt plays James as something akin to a good friend who happens to be a Bengal tiger - everyone does their best to get along with him because they don't know if or when he is going to take a swipe at them.
Roger Deakins films the production with luminous beauty, assisting in the austere but oddly dreamlike atmosphere with such recurring images as the clouds rolling by, the sun going down over a lonely landscape, or faces illuminated by nothing but candlelight or gaslight. It's a convincing picture of the rural 1880s, and to enhance that most of the actors behave in an unlettered fashion, making weak, unsophisticated attempts at humour or murmuring their dialogue so that you you have to fight the temptation to ask them to speak up.
This should, in theory, bring out tension in the story; after all, as the title suggests we're waiting for the main character to be shot dead. However, the recreation of period and attitudes is so meticulous that the film begins to look less like an evocation and more like a pickling. Affleck is appropriately creepy as Robert, the late nineteenth century equivalent of a fan who became disillusioned when he got too close to the reality of the object of his adoration, and Pitt is charismatic and unpredictable as the sometimes jocular, other times violent Jesse. And Sam Rockwell as Robert's brother Charley believably suffers what would nowadays be called a breakdown thanks to guilt.
So why does the drama never come entirely to life? Perhaps it's that although the film professes to be a warts and all examination of the Jesse James legend, it also falls victim to the awe that many Americans of the day, and for decades since, have held the man in. There are parallels with the celebrity culture of today that Dominik attempts to draw, but it is not taken into account how much the media and the public like to read and hear about gossip and rumour that brings the stars back down to earth, very different from the pamphlets that told tall, hero-worshipping tales of James and his ilk back in his day. There's a measure of indignation here about the way that James's reputation grew after his death, damning both Robert and Charley even though the man was a murderer who only worked for his own gain, but all concerned seem spellbound by the importance of the story they depict. Music by Nick Cave (who appears) and Warren Ellis.