Owing as much to Andrei Tarkovsky as it does to John Ford, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an unusual mood piece, both exciting and somniferous. Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is at the prime of his life when Bob Ford, a bashful teenager who idolises James, approaches him with the hope of collaborating with the infamous criminal. After joining in on a successful train robbery, James’ gang disbands and Bob continues to shadow Jesse, simultaneously growing more awed and disenchanted with his hero. When he discovers former gang members are colluding to capture him for a bounty, Jesse relies on Bob more and more, little knowing that Bob is soon to betray him.
The film succeeds primarily on a visual level. Photographer Roger Deakins, renowned as a frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers, works his magic over all 160 minutes, and there’s not a single frame that wouldn’t look lovely hanging on a wall. Extreme use of bokeh (that is to say, blurred backgrounds and sharp foregrounds) has a similar existentialist effect as it does in Sokurov’s haunting Mother And Son.
While great care has been taken to retain historical accuracy, the film loses rhythm in the middle and it becomes somewhat sluggish. However, this is more than made up for by great performances from a well-selected cast. Casey Affleck as Bob proves there’s acting talent to be found in the Affleck clan, while Brad Pitt outdoes himself in his best role of the decade.