'The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford" -- I should've known by the title that it was going to be bugnuts crazy. Sure enough, "Assassination" lives up to its expectations.
Poetic, mosaic, maddening, absurd, violent, troubling, eloquent, bloody, profound, crazy nuts -- "Assassination" is all that and then some. It's a tragic tale of obsession and hero worship. It's a cautionary look at the pitfalls of fame. It's a thinly veiled take on never-ending sibling rivalry. It could be the most deranged send-up of male bonding ever made. It's "All About Eve" with six-shooters! But, most important, dang it, it's a Western.
Let's start with Brad Pitt, who's at his Tyler Durden battiest as the legendary outlaw Jesse James. The movie has James hitting middle-age malaise, living a life of near-anonymity (he's known as "Thomas Howard") with his wife (Mary-Louise Parker) and his children in 1881.
It's during his final train robbery with his brother Frank (an all-too-brief, all-too-effective Sam Shepard) that he meets Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), the young admirer who, along with his older brother (Sam Rockwell), joins up with the James gang and wants to walk in his footsteps.
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The movie goes a long way (translation: a whopping 160 minutes), laying out everything from subplots involving other James gang members to an unknown narrator (Hugh Ross) keeping everything nice and literate, in revealing how Ford's respect for James turns sour. Ford's awkward, awe-filled declarations amuse James -- who is too busy going on a paranoid murder tear, permanently quieting those former gang members who dare think of rubbing him out for a reward, to notice that his biggest fan is looking to take him down. Even if that means conspiring with the cops to do it.
Did I mention this movie is kind of insane? But then, should I expect anything else from director Andrew Dominik, who gave us a warped view of a real-life, spotlight-hogging, natural-born killer with his debut film "Chopper"? As in that film, Dominik, adapting Ron Hansen's 1983 novel of the same name, presents his protagonist as a dangerous yet fragile man, a man who lies to himself because he can't come to terms with the deeply disturbed individual he knows he is.
It was a stroke of genius having producer Pitt, a man who couldn't stay out of the public eye if he wanted to, play James as an enigmatic, self-loathing, I'm-so-over-myself rock star. You'll be just as taken by Affleck's performance, playing Ford as an attention-craving, snotnosed punk whose clingy creepiness dissolves into spurned scorn when the feelings aren't reciprocated. Once he commits the titular act, Affleck plays Ford as a regretful lost soul who begins to realize what James went to his grave well aware of: being infamous isn't all that it's cracked up to be.
Yeah, "Assassination" is one of those movies. (Translation: A great one.)