Dir: Andrew Dominik. USA 2007. 159 mins.
Stirring, nuanced and elegaic, Andrew Dominik's retelling of Jesse James's legend is equal parts a mentor-acolyte love story, a melancholy neo-Western and a tragedy of betrayal with Biblical echoes. Based on the historical novel by Ron Hansen, the film touches on the way history and the media create heroes and monsters, asking what might have happened in the months and days leading up to the killing of Jesse James by Robert Ford, a 19-year-old member of the outlaw's extended family of friends and associates in crime.
Ravishingly shot in an autumn-to-winter pallette by Roger Deakins and featuring a mesmeric central performance by Casey Affleck, solidly supported (whatever the poster says) by Brad Pitt, this is a mature, meticuolous work.
Most of the conversations and meetings portrayed here are pure speculation, but an illusion of veracity is created by the film's unhurried chronological strucure, careful on-screen annotation of dates and locations, and drawling third-person narrative voice-over.
But on this docu-drama base The Assassination of Jesse James builds an edifice that is at once moving and dreamlike - finally hitting the epic chord without striving for epic effect.
The running time of over two and a half hours doesn't feel like an imposition, though it will be a further test to audiences already challenged by the unfashionable genre.
Still, Pitt is a no-matter-what-he's-in pull for many, and takings both domestically and overseas will also be bolstered by positive reviews and word of mouth. Like the film itself, the box-office paradigm looks to be 'start slow and build'.
'He was growing into middle age' the opening voice-over tells us, with just the faintest hint of irony: and we see Pitt as Jesse James sitting comfortably at home, in a rocking chair, in a suburban home that seems to challenge our expectations of the Western genre.
But we are soon told that Jesse is still only 34 - and cut to the James gang's last big train heist, in Blue Cut, Missouri, on 7 September 1881, 14 years after James' first robbery and less than seven months before his death. James seems more at home here in the woods, surrounded by a band of outlaws - amateurs mostly, apart from Jesse's older brother Frank (a gloriously grizzly Sam Shepard).
It's at this point that young Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) approaches and asks to be taken on as one of the gang.
We get Ford at first glance: he has a whipped dog look in his eyes, but also a quick intelligence and deviousness. Jesse James is his hero: he has a collection of dime novels and newspaper clippings about the outlaw, who even before he was 30 was being portrayed as a Wild West Robin Hood.
James himself brushes off the legend that has built up around him, but he also seems secretly fascinated by it, caught in its headlights.
So begins an uneasy relationship between two unequal men: one a charismatic but suspicious loner who seems old and drained well before his time, the other a boy without any discernible qualities except a keen sense of resentment, stoked by continual teasings by his older brother and cousins, and an edge of psychosis, which prepares us for his transformation into that familiar figure, the fan who turns nasty - or the conflicted Judas figure compelled to shop the hero he worships.
Pitt is good, Affleck revelatory, suggesting depths of yearning behind Ford's impotent, craven exterior and growing in strength and confidence as James moves in the opposite direction, from genial power to haunted desperation.
And the rest of the cast are strong too, from Sam Rockwell as Robert's brother Charley to Paul Schneider as the backwoods poet and happy-go-lucky womaniser Dick Liddil.
The West portrayed here is a place that encompasses both encroaching urbanisation and areas of untouched rural purity, ice-bound lakes and remote ranches that have an oneiric quality, like a painting by Andrew Wyeth.
DoP Deakins mixes widescreen epic landscapes with dark, intimate interiors, and certain scenes are shot with blurred edges, as as if through a bottle - a technique that is neatly explained towards the end, when we are reminded that photographs of Jesse James' corpse were a popular attraction in peep shows and stereoscopes.
The soundtrack, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, revolves around a lilting theme that changes orchestration as the film progresses, starting off in almost jaunty mode on what sounds like a vibraphone before gradually building to a full orchestral swell at the end.
Cave also puts in a cameo as a saloon strummer singing the Ballad of Jesse James - the song that more than anything, gave Robert Ford the bad PR image which Dominik's fine second outing attempts, at least partly, to reverse.
Warner Bros Pictures presents
in association with
a Scott Free / Plan B Enterainment production
Warner Bros Pictures
based on the novel by Ron Hansen