Reviewed by David Levinson

STUBBORN and declamatory, like a tombstone, the title card to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford doesn’t appear until the film’s end, shovelling the last 160 minutes into a single dry-retch of historical detail. But then again, like Dick Liddil (one of the “petty thieves” enlisted by Frank and Jesse James) says early on: “You can hide things in vocabulary.” In the case of Dominik’s prim mouthful, what’s hidden is trauma – the way Jesse, beyond being the merely assassinated, burned through Ford’s consciousness with such force that in the end he had to be put out. By reinvoking both men for the sake of The Assassination..., Dominik, who last courted celebrity killer Chopper Reed, isn’t hoping to penetrate the flame of their existence – only to stand close enough to feel its heat.

True to his shamed handle, when we first lay eyes on Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), he’s like a scared tadpole – voice escaping in high croaks as he pleads with Frank James to be made a fulltime accessory to the James Gang. But by the time he, one year later, shoots Frank’s brother in the back of the head, he seems to have undergone a definite physical transformation: his eyes, once simple and light, are hardened, and his voice no longer an unruly instrument. Between then Ford serves time as criminal riff-raff picked up by the James brothers for the sake of their final train heist in Blue Cut, Missouri – rounding off an outfit that includes his older brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Dick Lidell (Paul Schneider).

Not quite the raw convicts that history might imagine though, Dominik greets James Gang V2.0 in a moment of poetic downtime – meaning that (overwhelmingly) pretty shots of landscapes aren’t the only thing he ripped from Malick. No: The opening conversation, in which Lidell waxes lyrical about the virtues of poetry in seducing women, has that same transfixed banality – pooled from a oneness with nature – that marks the more casual stretches in Malick’s sagas. The main difference is that for Malick, in addition to this rapport, characters are usually granted a priviledged inner life – one that’s revealed in voice-over, and drawn away from the Babel-like stir of outside. Domink, on the other hand, is less certain about such divisions: As far as he’s concerned, history is a languid fever dream, whose constant reimagining turns key players into Cubist-like overlays.

What makes The Assassination... feel so implacable in terms of the current canon of Western revivals (3:10 to Yuma, etc.) then, is the way it knowingly exploits our uncertainty about historical account – swinging pendulum-like between its mannered story tropes, and the more finely-bled souls within, without ever commiting to either balls-out revisionism or an autopilot resuscitation. So, for example, while voice-over is employed by Dominik, it belongs to an unknown narrator, whose clunky declarations leave cracks between their own gilding (“When Jesse walks by even the rain falls slower,” he claims) and the earthy intensity of Bob’s obsession with Jesse. On top of that, Domink shoots certain establishing shots through a pin-hole camera, smearing the majority of the frame, and ensuring that, aside from the known cofactor of Jesse, history (literally) becomes an indiscriminate blur.

Thankfully though, the film’s too visceral to succumb to Dominik’s thesis-minded rope-pulling. But what remains off-putting about these formal guises (all prettty much amounting to the fact that we can never truly know a man, that the past is basically impenetrable, etc. etc.) is that they don’t grow out organically out of the film’s schema – which, naturally, is the point when you’re dealing with the implements of theatrical alienation. But Dominik is hardly a student of Brecht, and their use here doesn’t exactly unlock realms of unknowability that aren’t already contained in Pitt’s magnificent performance – one that argues the man as a sliding-puzzle of warm charisma, assailed with deep streaks of violence. Rather, Dominik’s resort to disclaimer feels almost apologetic, as if it were something he needed to get out of the way before he could unload breathtaking sequences like the robbery at Blue Cut, in which high-crime is recast as a ballet of shadow and light.

If history is indeed a “medium” (as Walter Benjamin wrote about memory), then it’s hard to assess whether Dominik means for his pursuit of the Jesse-Bob throughline to be a definitive rebuke, or just another strata on the banks of an ongoing saga. Either way, it remains the film’s most compelling prop – mainly thanks to the way Dominik manages to hold the mythic center of each figure in orbit, even as he saddles them with dirty psychological make-up. In the case of Jesse, the effect becomes a full conversion into harrowing portend, so that once he starts hunting down members of the gang post-Blue Cut, in a fit of paranoic house-cleaning, even when not on-screen he rattles with death’s arrhythmia. For Bob, on the other hand, most of the film is spent walking in the cement-shoes of a fawning groupie, and its only once he’s plugged into a late passage, in which he resolves to finally kill his unbending idol, that he grows legs as someone of interest.

Of course, while it might be easy to dismiss the titular climax by chalking it up as the final declaration of Bob’s “latent homosexuality” (or something), the passage works so well anyway because, contra to the seething interiors of the leads, Dominik envisions it as a tone poem of durable qualities; so, when Jesse leaves home to attend church with his family on the morning of his death, his gesture of lying in Jesse’s bed and, for the moment, becoming him, has a physical finality to it that transcends psychological reasoning. At the same time, Dominik also falls back on the old coding of the Wild Wild West, to the extent that, upon returning home from church, Jesse stands up almost ritualistically to wipe a painting above the mantelpiece, with his back to Bob, who then proceeds to shoot him. With this final, emphatic turn, Dominik confirms his universe as being both on par with the Western’s exhortation of masculine prowess (aka the “Old World”, to which Jesse belongs), as well as a kind of rejection of it, given the (awfully executed) coda, in which Bob relives the assassination as a stage play, with Jesse’s motion of dignity being reduced to theatrical curio. The meaning, of course, is clear: That history’s gestures, offered up to a contemporary audience, become rote and diagrammatic. Ultimately, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an attempt to return to those gestures the coloring of real feeling, wrought with all the messy intensity of poetry. And, granted, for all its blind ambition, it often missteps in a way that isn’t particularly productive. But in amongst the tangle of its failures, there’s more than enough clear views of something beautiful and determined to make the journey worth it.