New Republic says Jesse James movie is best of the year so far





Gentleman bandit. Heartless killer. Confederate martyr. Rank opportunist. Inspiration. Abomination. Jesse James has been considered all of the above by various people at various times, but Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is largely agnostic regarding such disputes. The film is concerned less with the content of James's character than with the meaning of his murder. Insofar as it asks a question, it is whether a man who has been elevated to myth can continue to coexist with mere mortals. The answer is right there in the title.

The film opens in September 1881, seven months before its titular act. James (Brad Pitt) is 34 years old and living in Kansas City under the name Thomas Howard. The legendary James-Younger gang--which had for years preyed upon banks, stagecoaches, trains, and even a county fair--is no more, its members all caught or killed, save for James and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). For a final train robbery, the two men assemble a motley crew of "petty thieves and country rubes," among them Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) and his young brother Bob (Casey Affleck), an uncomfortably eager young outlaw. Frank does not take to the boy ("You don't have the ingredients, son," he explains), but Jesse is less discerning: "I don't care who comes with me, never have. That's why they call me gregarious."

The train job takes place at night in the Missouri woods, and Dominik stages the scene with uncommon beauty. The gang has thrown a lumber barricade across the tracks and, as the locomotive approaches it, its lone eye shines like a porthole to another world. If the opening heist in 3:10 to Yuma, the season's first attempt at revivifying the Western, had all the rowdiness of a sporting event, The Assassination's resembles opera. It is the first of many wonders in a stately epic that, at two hours and forty minutes, takes its time and rewards those willing to do the same....


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