This post originally appeared at TNR.com.
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.
The robbery itself goes smoothly enough, but the associations it entailed will gradually prove fraught. Frank James soon abandons the gang to move East, leaving Jesse with no comrades beyond the miscreants assembled for the job: his cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner); hyperarticulate ladies' man Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider); slow, nervous Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt); and, of course, Charley and Bob Ford.
The bulk of the film concerns itself with the shifting dynamics between these men, the affection and jealousies, alliances and betrayals. The others are all in awe of James, but terrified of him, too, and not without reason. The tension is most acute for young Ford, who has kept a stash of Jesse James storybooks under his bed since youth. He craves James's attention with a lover's ardor; for him, the famous outlaw is tonic and talisman, an opportunity to transcend his dismal existence. "I been a nobody all my life," he confesses at one point. "And ever since I can remember it, Jesse James has been as big as a tree."
James, for his part, has begun to shrink inside himself. Years of being hunted by lawmen and Pinkertons have taken their toll, burying his gregariousness under layers of paranoia and superstition. He is a man who knows that death is coming for him but is uncertain from which direction.
The temptation for Pitt to deliver a Big Performance in such a role must have been considerable, but he (and Dominik) wisely opt for understatement. Unlike Russell Crowe's Ben Wade in Yuma, James is a man with nothing left to prove, no one he needs to impress. His legend, already secure, is evident less in his own demeanor than in that of the people around him. "Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them," an authorial voiceover declares at the opening of the film, and, not infrequently, we see the sweat on his companions' brows.