The title tells you the what but not the why. Or even the how. Those two questions are key to the heart of Andrew Dominik’s moving, expansive, brutal and beautiful western. This is a ’70s movie in all but the year it was made, a film that will sit alongside the likes of McCabe & Mrs Miller and Terrence Malick’s CV in the cinematic corral reserved for “elegiac” and “lyrical”. Certainly, it’s won’t be to everyone’s taste. Slow, poetic, impressionistic, epic, meandering; even its director says it has a story but no real plot. Harking back to a bygone era, it’s awash with melancholy and ennui, love and betrayal, obsession and paranoia and arrives like manna from movie heaven.
It’s been seven years since the Kiwi-born Dominik’s blistering debut, Chopper, introduced the world to Eric Bana and got its director on the shortlist of filmmakers that every young (or youngish) A-list actor wanted to work with. Like Chopper this is, essentially, another frank, ferocious examination of a nefarious real-life criminal and one all too aware of his public perception. But while old west folklore may have pegged Jesse James as a Robin Hood figure, there’s scant romanticism here. Brad Pitt plays Jesse the man, the myth, the legend, as haunted and introspective, flawed and mercurial. His Jesse is callous in his charisma, prone to mood swings and obsessed with his own mortality.
The film begins on 5 September 1881 with Jesse, according to the mellifluous, omnipresent narration, 34 and “growing into middle age”, living in Kansas under an alias with his wife and two kids. After this elliptical prologue we’re introduced to the remnants of the infamous James Gang, led by Jesse and Sam Shepard’s stern-faced elder brother Frank, preparing for their last great train robbery in the Blue Cut Mountains in Missouri; after which Frank hung up his mask for good. It’s here too we meet Robert ‘Bob’ Ford (the mesmerising Casey Affleck): weak, creepy, obsessive, scheming, deceitful and desperate to ingratiate himself into the gang where his dopey older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) is already a member. Bob has idolised Jesse since childhood, collecting his clippings, revelling in the cheap paperbacks that detail his adventures. Flattered and freaked by the adulation, Jesse embraces the sycophant until one day, tiring of his idolatry, he humiliates him one last time and the die is cast, with the bounty on Jesse’s head another reason for Bob to turn on his hero.
Dominik, working from a novel by Ron Hansen, dissects this well-worn, oft-filmed outlaw tale with a fresh eye and an exquisite attention to both landscape and people. Dates, events, characters are mostly based on fact; the relationships, for the most part, invented. The stunningly staged train robbery is the film’s only real concession to an action set-piece. Thereafter it’s more psychological drama, as characters are introduced and drawn, carefully and leisurely, with Dominik giving almost everyone their due.
There’s no haste to the storytelling, no cut to the chase. Meticulously detailed and ravishingly shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose distorted imagery echoes the photography of the period, the film never flinches from tragedy, violence or understatement. It builds stealthily towards a mournful climax made clear from the outset, but extends far beyond: to where Bob discovers the true cost of shooting Jesse, as the fingers of fame and infamy entwine and his own celebrity status begins to choke him. The pacing does occasionally drag, the few female characters — including Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife Zee and Zooey Deschanel as Ford’s mistress — are given short shrift, while composer Nick Cave’s cameo is so distracting it takes you, momentarily, out of the movie. But these minor gripes aside, Dominik should be lauded for never taking the easy option and for playing it languid and literary.
Pitt should be congratulated, too, not just for a finely nuanced performance, his best to date, but for being his director’s 800-pound gorilla, making sure a) this got made and b) it got made the way Dominik wanted. Ten-word title and all.