It’s a shame that Warner Bros. released this movie with so little ceremony and let it languish and die before it could find a broader audience. This is a film that is visually and narratively stunning. A mournful elegy on a way of life that has passed and a thoughtful meditation on the nature of celebrity. It features two wonderful central performances – those of Casey Affleck as Robert Ford, and Brad Pitt as Jesse James – and is directed with admirable confidence and skill. It’s a film that will reward you if you care to seek it out.
The story begins with the last train robbery of the James gang, headed by Jesse and his older brother Frank (Sam Shepard). Bob Ford wanders into the scene, a brother of Charley (Sam Rockwell), one of the gang’s members. He insinuates himself into Jesse’s life, regarding him with a mixture of hero-worship and desire. Frank doesn’t like Bob and later, when Jesse brings Bob home to stay, you get the feeling that Zee James (Mary-Louise Parker) is unsettled by him as well. Eventually, as the title reveals, Bob will slay Jesse, but that’s not where the movie ends. It goes beyond that to examine what it means that Jesse James has been murdered and examines how a criminal who killed people in cold blood became part of the romantic myth of the American west.
Andrew Dominik, who both wrote and directed the film, lets the story unfold slowly. We know where the story is going, but it takes its time getting there, letting us get to know the members of the James gang and get a feel for their relationships and for the surrounding landscape. The landscape becomes another character, sometimes flat and seeming to crush the characters between earth and sky, and always wide-open. Characters appear as specs on the horizon and ride in to focus in a number of beautiful shots. From a purely visual standpoint, my favourite shot is at the beginning, when train the gang is going to rob comes to an abrupt stop in the darkness and Jesse is bathed in the steam from the engine. Throughout the film, Jesse appears to us as if through a mist – the mist of Bob’s mind and the mist of history. There are scenes of voice-over narration over top of images that are just slightly blurry, as if we are watching re-enactments from a historical documentary. Jesse is always at a distance from us – what we know we learn through the voice-over’s flat, matter-of-fact narration, and Bob’s own perspective as he and Jesse dance closer to their destinies.
The moment of truth is fascinating as Jesse, weary and increasingly unstable emotionally, more or less invites Bob to murder him. He removes his guns and places them slowly on his couch for Bob to see, then walks across the room to clean the dust off a photo. In its reflection he sees Bob and allows himself to be shot. For Bob, too, this is treated as something inevitable. After he shoots Jesse, he collapses on the couch, his act having taken everything out of him. You don’t get the feeling that he wanted to kill Jesse as much as he recognized that he must, just as much as Jesse recognized that he had to let him.
As Bob, Casey Affleck runs a gauntlet of character development. We meet him first as an awkward 19-year-old who idolizes the famous outlaw. He wants to be Jesse James. Failing that, he wants to be with Jesse James, as the latent undertone of numerous scenes suggest. Failing that, he must kill Jesse James. Following the murder, for which he’s never charged due to a deal made with the Governor, Bob capitalizes on his own new-found fame, appearing before packed houses for the staging of re-enactments of the murder with Charley playing Jesse. Eventually, he himself is assassinated and he seems to accept it as easily as Jesse did.
The way the film deals with the assassination and its aftermath comments strongly on the nature of celebrity culture. Jesse’s corpse is displayed for the public, photographed, made in to a sideshow much to Zee’s horror. Bob is reviled for having murdered him even though the public flocks to his show, eagerly to see him recreate the murder for them, and even though Jesse murdered a number of people in cold blood. Bob dreams of visiting the families of those people, whom he imagines would thank him for having killed the outlaw. But the bad things Jesse did cease to matter with his death - he becomes a myth, a figure of romance. People pay to tour the homes where he lived, they buy pictures of his corpse, write songs about him, name their children after him. “You’re gonna break a lot of hearts,” Jesse tells Bob. And he does.