This biography gives us an outlaw that only Dr. Phil could love.
There's a theory that historical movies reveal as much about the era in which they are made as they do about the time they represent. Viewers will find plenty of fodder to bolster that stance in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."
Beyond the fact that the title gives away the ending -- talk about your classic bad idea -- it doesn't really reflect what the movie is about. A better title might have been "Jesse James in the Age of Pop Therapy."
As portrayed by Brad Pitt, the legendary criminal is conflicted and manic-depressive, swinging radically between moods while trying to exorcise personal demons. By this telling, James wouldn't have had to rob banks if he'd just been able to go into analysis.
Are we overfocusing on this element of the film? Probably, but that's the fault of writer/director Andrew Dominik. Hampered by tortoiselike pacing and flat acting, the film manages to make armed robbery and gunfights boring. By default, the psychological subtext is the most interesting part.
The story takes place after the bank robbery in Northfield, Minn. (which is not shown, but is mentioned). The James Gang splits up after that heist, with Jesse and his older brother, Frank, riding south while the rest of the gang goes west, where a posse eventually catches up with them.
As the story opens, Frank (Sam Shepard in an extended cameo) and Jesse have put together a new gang and are preparing to rob a train. The recruits are wet-behind-the-ears punks who make Frank nervous. He figures that it's only a matter of time before they do something stupid that results in them all getting arrested or shot.
A case in point is Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), whose notion of being a crook comes from the crime stories he loves to read. Frank can't stand Ford or his romanticized ignorance. His sense of dread is so strong that he tells Jesse that he's retiring right after the train job.
But Jesse likes Ford. And why not? The wannabe gunslinger follows him around like an Old West version of Mini-Me. He dresses like Jesse, walks like Jesse, even tries to smoke the same cigars as Jesse. He's the ultimate flunky, willing to do any job no matter how demeaning just to stay in Jesse's good graces.
The bulk of the narrative involves Jesse's insecurities. He plans multiple robberies, but he can't work up the nerve to attempt any of them. With his erratic behavior -- one minute he's threatening to shoot any member of the gang who looks sideways, the next he's lavishing expensive gifts upon them -- his devotees gradually drift away until only Ford remains loyal. Or so Jesse thinks.
Dominik (the Aussie thriller "Chopper") handcuffs the talented cast. Pitt embraces Jesse's charismatic side, but never gets a chance to fully explore his darker persona. Likewise, Affleck toys with showing depth, but never delivers. Even the veteran Shepard comes off as lackluster, as he, like everyone else, delivers his dialogue in a pseudo-monotone.
The pacing of story doesn't help. With a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes, scenes that are too long start to seem even longer as the movie drags on.
There are intriguing elements. Dominik demonstrates a keen sense of detail, the photography is gorgeous and the psychological element is interesting to ponder. But those things should be in the background.
Jeff Strickler 612-673-7392