Outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) commands the loyalty of his bandits as they commit infamous train robberies, but when loner Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) tries to become part of the group he become strangely obsessed with Jesse.
I hate including spoilers in reviews, but the title of this film is like calling The Sixth Sense “Bruce Willis is a Ghost All Along”. Perhaps it was thought the story of Jesse James is so well known that it could hardly surprise anyway, but personally I knew nothing about it.
But what’s important is, I suppose, not the assassination itself, but the journey the characters go on to get there, and the toll it takes on the assassin. “No one would line the streets to see his funeral. No children would be named after him,” the voice over laments. Except, of course, the incumbent Mayor of Toronto, but then if he’s the only person named after you that’s not much of a legacy, I guess. There’s also a character called Ed Miller. Let’s hope he doesn’t start an outlaw band of his own or they’d have to call it the…oh I can’t, it’s too obvious.
In any case, this film’s excellence comes from its execution. A lot of this is thanks to the sublime performances of its all star cast, including Pitt, Affleck, Jeremy Renner and Sam Rockwell. But their performances are set against stunning scenery, with a unique and haunting soundtrack atypical of the genre.
The most recent Westerns I’ve seen are The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Wild Bunch, and Jesse James is a huge break from these. While many films of the genre tell a story through action and violence, there is very little of that here. This is a serious crime drama that happens to be set in the Wild West, rather than a “Western” style movie. There are no whip cracks or shootouts, or Mexican stereotypes. There’s a lot of plot, told through dialogue and voice over which is interesting even if it occasionally borders on the slow.
The film is, perhaps, unfair on Ford, reinforcing his status as a coward for executing the noble, brave Jesse James, who in reality was just a train robber who killed a lot of people. In any case, it’s a delicate study of characters who are now as much legend as they are history.