The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Warner Bros. Entertainment

The Bigger Picture:  Assassination is an absolute misfire. What could have been a tightly focused chamber drama about masculine insecurity and obsession is instead a protracted parade of writer/director Andrew Dominik's lovingly lensed self-indulgence. A genuinely talented cast gives patchy performances under the weight of the director's heavy handed montages, repetitive scenes and painfully literal storytelling.

The story, you may know. The legendary outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is saddling up for his last great heist; most of his regular crew are dead or in jail. So, he and his accomplice brother round up a bunch of small-time Appalachian thieves—one of them being the sickly and uneasy Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) who idolizes James.

Ford's all-consuming eagerness to impress at first amuses James, then repels him. We soon discover that James is a depressive insomniac who descends into one of those classic post-heist-hysterias and decides to ruthlessly murder his crew. This tedious, and ostensibly pointless, quest gobbles up a majority of the film. After 120 minutes, Ford finally works his way back into the film and into James' orbit—only after making a pact with the local cops to hand James over. James decides to enlist Ford as his new sidekick and well, you can guess how it ends.

Through all of this, it's clear that Dominik doesn't trust his audience. He forces us to witness scene after scene of James' paranoia and of Ford's twisted admiration, few of which shed any new light. And just in case we've missed anything, every 25 minutes a disembodied narrator recites long, eloquent passages from Ron Hansen's novel, which describe exactly what we have been watching.

But why did the calculating, mistrustful Jesse James allow a volatile hanger-on such as Robert Ford to get so close to him? And why did an educated and observant Ford invest all of his ambition into a ruthless outlaw? Why is a petty sociopath like Jesse James' mythologized as a frontier Robin Hood?

No idea. Dominik never bothers to explore some fundamental questions and sticks to the surface, literally—the movie is dominated by sweeping shots of the wintry western landscape and swooning close ups Brad Pitt's baby blues. Gone are the messy moral ambiguities explored so well in Hasen's novel, replaced with little more than pretty pictures.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  There are a few moments of spellbinding acting done by Affleck and the ensemble. This should be the film (please let it be the film) that finally moves him out of brother Ben's gigantic shadow of mediocrity and onto the A-list.

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