Not all Westerns are brow-beating boy’s adventure tales. Although your typical cowboys and Indians tale was the purview of John Wayne and John Ford, the genre has expanded its horizons over the years. Brokeback Mountain turned the natural beauty and gorgeous location shots of the Western into a tragic story of forbidden love. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was the striking anti-Western which explored the psychological consequences of violence and revenge. Television’s Breaking Bad may be a modern drug crime drama, but anyone who’s seen the show’s long shots of the open Arizona desert (or this season’s rousing train robbery) knows where it’s roots lie.

2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford from director Andrew Dominik transforms the American Western into an absorbing, existentialist psychological drama. By taking one of the most famous figures of the American West and turning his infamous murder on its head, The Assassination of Jesse James avoids the biggest risk faced by all historical dramas. Rather than focusing on the “what” or “how” of history, it examines the why. By making the Western into a gripping character study, The Assassination of Jesse James is one of last decade’s best Westerns.

At the tender age of 19, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was accepted into the notorious James brothers gang, led by the charismatic Jesse James (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt). Robert is a shy and sensitive young man with more education than your average gunslinger. He has worshiped Jesse James his entire life. With a list of similarities between himself and the storied criminal that he recite at whim, Robert is Jesse’s biggest fan. He even has a stash of nickel novels stashed under his bed celebrating a fictional side of Jesse’s outlaw life. So, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime when he’s given the chance to run with his hero. Naturally, it all goes downhill from there.

Robert Ford quickly learns that living the life of an outlaw isn’t as glamorous as he imagined. His hero worship for Jesse earns him the ire and cruelty of his criminal comrades (played by a wonderful supporting cast including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, and Garret Dillahunt) and the immediate suspicion of Jesse himself. After taking one humiliation after another from Jesse and crew, Robert finally gets it in his head to kill Jesse at the behest of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and must wrestle with the moral minefield of deciding to shoot his former leader for fame and wealth.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a film with such dark themes shouldn’t look this pretty. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a gorgeously shot film at an almost Malick-ian scale. Although the film makes use of lengthy expositional montages (to get across some of the more historical information of the film), it never feels too stale or dry because the lighting and coloring of the film is phenomenal. If a film is going to run for 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s got to have a lot going for it, and the always stunning cinematography kept you glued to the screen.

The film also acts as an engrossing meditation on responsibility and guilt (in a similar vein to last year’s marvelous Margaret). Although history has come down rather harshly on Robert Ford (hence the film’s somewhat ironic title), The Assassination of Jesse James paints a far more sympathetic portrait. Yet it also refuses to absolve Robert completely of the role he plays. Instead, we see a tightly wound, complex tale of hero worship gone wrong, how deep loyalty binds us, how far we go to protect ourselves, and even some slight homoerotic undertones (that perhaps I’m reading too deeply into).

Casey Affleck earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination (Javier Bardem obviously deserved the win that year for No Country for Old Men). Robert Ford has been painted as one of history’s most notorious cowards. Casey Affleck captures Robert’s wounded pride, his obvious obsession with Jesse, his growing remorse about his decision to kill Jesse, and his overall shame about the path he walks. With great performances in Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck has matured into a great actor that surpassed his brother Ben with aplomb.

Brad Pitt is also wonderful. His Jesse James is an almost mythical figure, a monster from a child’s cautionary tale. Although the film takes great pains to let you know this legendary bandit is a human being like the rest of us (we see him playing with his children, doting on his wife [Mary Louise Parker], and enjoying the company of his friends), Brad Pitt never lets you forget that Jesse is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. If he has the slightest reason to suspect betrayal, he’ll kill you without batting an eyelash. Brad Pitt channels Jesse’s paranoia, his mercurial charm, his ability to inflict fear and loyalty into everyone around him, and ultimately his weariness with the world around him. 2007 was a great year for Oscar nominees but it’s hard to believe that Brad Pitt wasn’t nominated.

The film is also buoyed by its wonderful supporting cast. Paul Schneider (Parks and Recreation) shows why he was such a believable roue in All the Real Girls as the rakish Dick Liddle whose voracious sexual appetite helps put the eventual downfall of the James gang in motion. Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) made one of his most high-profile pre-The Hurt Locker roles as Jesse’s cousin, Wood Hite, who gets his jollies from bullying the sensitive young Robert Ford. Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt plays the type of cowardly, in-too-deep role that has been a mainstay of his career as another member of the gang who may or may not have been planning to betray Jesse, and of course Moon‘s Sam Rockwell continues to show why he is one of America’s most under-appreciated character actors as the Cheshire cat grin-bearing Charlie Ford.

It’s difficult to stress enough how unconventional of a western The Assassination of Jesse James ultimately is. Although it delivers moments such as a train robbery, shoot-outs, and stunning vistas of the untouched American west, those genre touchstones are ultimately secondary to exploring what drove Robert to murder and perhaps telling one man’s side of the story after 150 years of having his name smeared. The consensus among Western purists is that the film is “too slow” and “too talky,” but for people who aren’t even big Western fans in the first place, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have the potential to change your mind about the genre forever. Don’t let this underappreciated gem slip under your radar.

Final Score: A-

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