In the 1880’s it was said that Jesse James was the most famous American after Mark Twain. A point noted in the film. On April 3rd, 1882 Jesse James was assassinate in his own home by a man he knew. Jesse is still famous today, as much for how he died as how he lived and a popular subject for filmmakers.
It would be easy, I suppose, to state the film was about Jesse’s death. After all, it’s there in the title and there is indeed a brutal recreation of the murder. Still that would be wrong.
Starting with his last train robbery, the film focuses in on the last few months of Jesse James’ life and his relationship with his eventual killer, Bob Ford. Rather than a grisly examination of his murder what is offered is a gritty drama about hero worship and obsession. The real lead is not Brad Pitt as Jesse but the green, Jesse worshipping, gun hand Bob Ford and his obsession with stepping out of Jesse’s shadow.
The film features an interesting and competent performance by Casey Afleck (as Ford), a casting choice that seemed a touch ironic. There is of course Brad Pitt who, despite moments of nuance, pitched James a bit too close to Tyler Durden for this reviewer. A choice underlined by some of the costume choices. However, for me, it was Sam Rockwell as Bob’s older brother stole the show with a captivating turn as a man hopelessly trapped in a situation that he knows will ultimately destroy him.
The writing is good, and like Brad Pitt’s performance, actually moves into brilliant in places. Handfuls of genuine insight: where Jesse calls on an old friend who is less than pleased to see him, where Bob watches Jesse in the bath and when Jesse gives Bob the gun that will eventually kill him. Yet in other places it just clunks, breaking the spell.
The film’s major let down is the dreadful voice over that seemed superfluous to requirements. Perhaps it was intended to give the film the feel of folk lore but all it did for me was break the narrative structure and take me away from the film’s characters. The film’s premise is also diluted by the bloated runtime.
Overall it’s a gritty, hard drama with a strong cast and solid writing. It could have benefited from a nip and a tuck but, if you like this sort of Western (I do), it’s well worth a look.