Westerns which seek to revise the mythology of the old American frontier are few and far between. Many have had mixed successes at the box office. Robert Benton's 1972 film, Bad Company, starring a young Jeff Bridges, painted a stark image of teenage rage in the 1860s. Clint Eastwood's philosophical take on the ravages of old age on a former gunslinger, 1992's Oscar-winning Unforgiven, redrew the Wild West in muted textures. Even Ron Howard, no stranger to the art of mainstream cinema, chose to realise 2003's The Missing, starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, with shadowy overtones evoking the presence of foreign evil.
On its release last year, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quickly disappeared from cinemas. The film had already been held from release by its studio for over a year. In a movie-going climate dominated by sequels such as Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, the director Andrew Dominik's thoughtful and studied retelling of the short life and death of Jesse James proved too maudlin for the tastes of most film audiences.
As the film opens, Brad Pitt's Jesse James is a ghostlike figure driven to caution and paranoia by his own notoriety. He trusts no one. By the early 1880s, he and the James Gang are in hiding. Wanted by the authorities James is a fugitive, seeking refuge from house to house. A condemned man, he spends his days waiting for the inevitable end. It is while on the run - with many of his men either dead or in jail - that James is introduced to Robert Ford, played here by a spellbinding Casey Affleck. A shy and calculating young man who has grown up reading pulp novels about the outlaw, Ford models himself on James. He in turn praises and stalks his idol, eventually winning his approval into the James Gang. From there it is a short journey to the end one day in 1882, when he shoots James in the back.
In reality, Ford's slaying of James turned him into an instant celebrity. Immediately lauded for his one moment of heroism, he took to the road with a pantomime-inspired re-enactment of his killing of James. It is here that Dominik's film takes a crucially important turn towards the prosaic. The killing of Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford wasn't the first instance of celebrity betrayal, of course: that honour would surely go to King Duncan of Scotland in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. But Dominik painstakingly builds a case for James as the first victim of modern celebrity in an era that marked the dawn of the mass media. The fate of Affleck's Ford is no better: he is doomed to a lifetime of re-enacting his one moment of glory. And as the truth about his killing of James slowly dawns on the newspaper reading public, Ford too discovers the purgatory of infamy as those who once championed his every move turn against him. In the end, he too meets a similar fate.
Dominik's directorial style bears all the poignant and often experimental hallmarks of Terrence Malick. The cinematographer Roger Deakins bathes the film in natural light. And while Affleck was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar last year, Pitt too deserves recognition for his unsettling portrayal of the legendary outlaw. firstname.lastname@example.org