How the West Was Spun: Brad Pitt Stars in a Downbeat Meditation on Fame and Criminality

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (15)

dir: Andrew Dominik

People often ask if the western is making a comeback, but a more pertinent question would be whether it's ever going to cheer up. The likes of Ride the High Country and McCabe and Mrs Miller set a precedent that kept the genre in a state of delirious melancholy for decades; watching these poetic laments for a bygone era can be like attending a wake. Now it's time to dig out the funeral clothes again for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film so downbeat, cinemas should consider spiking the popcorn with Prozac.

The picture confines itself to the last year of Jesse James's life, when he was in hiding under a pseudonym. Brad Pitt gives a very un-Brad Pitt-like portrayal of the legendary bandit; you would have to go back to his days as an unsavoury character actor in Kalifornia or Twelve Monkeys to find a role more detached from his smug, glossy persona. Pitt captures the rueful disposition of a man watching the light change from his rocking chair and settling scores before his time runs out. He makes Jesse a cautious figure, alert to the smallest betrayal, who moves only if it can't be avoided--such as when he clubs a guard who stands between him and the safe he means to rob.

But when Pitt was named Best Actor for his performance at this year's Venice Film Festival, it was a case of right film, wrong recipient. I don't mean to begrudge him his award. It's just that anyone who sees this picture will agree it belongs to Casey Affleck, who gives a star-making performance as Jesse's eager-beaver sidekick Bob Ford. Nineteen-year-old Bob is 15 years Jesse's junior, and has idolised him throughout his childhood. The force of this worship gives him the confidence to ingratiate himself with the James gang, and even to become Jesse's house guest. Caressing the clothes in his hero's wardrobe, he's like a cowboy version of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca.


What the film, based on Ron Hansen's novel, tries to establish is how Bob went from fawning groupie to the man who put a bullet in Jesse's back. The lion's share of this explanation is borne by Affleck, who brings unimagined shadings to moments of simple joy or surliness. Whenever Bob receives Jesse's approval, Affleck cracks open a toothy smile that suggests sunlight breaking through storm clouds. …