The movie's texture resembles that of a daguerreotype - metallic, monochrome, symmetrically framed, and a little fuzzy around the edges. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, artist among lensmen, approximates a 19th-century means of telling the 19th-century story, and it is striking.
Yet the visuals are so epically scaled for this intimate story that they overwhelm what is a portrait of two men. Inspired by the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, the film about outlaw and sidekick means to be an inquiry into the relations between celebrity and fan - or, in Dominik's retelling, the prairie Jesus and Judas.
It was said about James, outlaw-legend, that he was "utterly devoid of fear and with no more compunction about cold-blooded murder than he has about eating breakfast." Pitt is a study in magnetism and repulsion, drawing the ragtag Ford brothers, Charley (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Affleck), into his orbit, and then scaring the bejesus out of them to keep them in line.
The film opens at the time of the James Gang's final train robbery, when Jesse's elder brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), outright rejects the young Robert because the sycophant with the nervous whimper and battered bowler gives him "the willies."
Yet Jesse, on the eve of the Gang's breakup, is looking for a new band of brothers. He eyes Robert - his number-one fan and collector of every dime novel about his exploits - as a vain man might a mirror. "Want to be like me, or want to be me?" demands Jesse of Robert.
Though Jesse gets first billing in the title, this is a movie about Robert, the man without his own identity, the moon reflecting Jesse's sun. In suggesting Robert's callowness, Affleck delivers an eerily profound performance, as shifty-eyed and unpredictable as Pitt's Jesse. In a small role as a gang defector, Paul Schneider likewise makes a big impression.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ** (out of four stars)
Written and directed by Andrew Dominik. With Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Paul Schneider and Mary-Louise Parker.
Running time: 2 hours, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, sexual candor)
Playing at: UA RiverView,
The Bridge and Showcase
at the Ritz Center/NJ.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey
at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/