Can this beautiful piece of poetry really be only Andrew Dominik's second film? It's made with such confidence, such assurance, as to appear the work of some old master, returning to the Western one last time. But then, Dominik's debut, Chopper, was nothing if not assured. And there are other similarities between the two films - both studies of fame and its effect, both centred on complex, disturbed men all too aware of their own myths. Here Dominik recalls the great revisionist Westerns of the 20 year period from the late 60s through the early 80s - the likes of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Heavens Gate and Walter Hill's superb take on the Jesse James legend, The Long Riders. His film has the solemnity and seriousness common to those films, the relaxed yet deliberate pacing, the slightly askew characterisation. It is also great enough to stand in their company without suffering by comparison. Yet it also seemed greatly informed by the work of Terrence Malick in its patience and attention to the natural world, in its subtly persuasive focus on psychology.
Based closely on Ron Hansen's fantastic novel - and taking its narration and much of its dialogue verbatim from the book - and exquisitely photographed by Roger Deakins, Dominik has still somehow managed to make a Western with something original to say. For this is at heart the story of an obsessive fan, with more in common with todays world of stalkers and media saturation than the genre iconography may at first suggest. Perhaps the most incisive passages occur after the titular event has passed and we are shown the fate of Bob Ford, as famous in his time as Jesse James ever was, and struggling to deal with it, just as Jesse did. The still-life montages of landscapes and empty rooms, and the daguerrotype-style shots of Jesse in town and nature provide visual poetry to match the lyricism of Hansen's narration, and Pitt and Affleck both do career-best work, the latter in particular an absolute revelation. The delicate score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the fine cast of young actors as Jesse's ragtag last gang (Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Garett Dillahunt, David Schneider) only make it all more expertly calibrated.
The films most interesting quality is its ambiguity - about its characters, most particularly. Pitt's Jesse is self-loathing, unpredictable, paranoid and lucidly aware of the narrowing odds he is facing; nursing a death wish, yet also charming, charismatic and attractive. He chooses Ford to be his killer, grooms him, and in so doing ensures that Ford is the one who has his character assassinated. The event makes Ford famous, yes, but also destroys his life. Ford gains our sympathy despite his creepiness, the ability he has to set people's teeth on edge merely by talking. This ambivalence in the authorial view of the central figures spreads through the narrative until the entire film is hung with it and the certainty of the title seems possibly ironic. The odd, fractured love story at the heart of this film gives it a black little heart which is beautifully and surgically exposed over the course of the precise, superbly textured narrative.
As slow as molasses, maybe, but in this sort of Western, thats a good thing, and Dominick adds his name to the roll-call of directors who have made great Jesse James films alongside the likes of Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Phil Kauffman and Walter Hill.