(CNN) -- Hollywood's favorite outlaw, Jesse James, is usually portrayed as a folk hero.
In "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," Brad Pitt is James and Casey Affleck is Ford.
Tyrone Power and Audie Murphy played him as a dashing rural guerrilla, a southern Robin Hood whose robberies targeted those capitalist carpetbaggers, the banks and the railroad. In the words of the famous ballad, "He took from the rich and he gave to the poor / He'd a hand, and a heart, and a brain."
At first blush the dapper, bearded Brad Pitt would seem to fit the mold of the classic James: a watchful alpha male, stern but naturally authoritative, and several degrees warmer than his remote older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard). He'll share a joke with the boys, or sit on the porch and smoke a convivial cigar.
But Andrew Dominik's elegiac, rueful -- even funereal -- film of Ron Hansen's novel, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," begins late in his career, after the disastrous Northfield, Minnesota, raid and the disintegration of the original James-Younger gang.
With 25 robberies and 19 murders under his belt, Jesse has a high price on his head, and he seems to sense the glory days are behind him. He's not about to hand over any money to the poor either, nor is there any hint that he ever did.
"It's all lies, you know," Jesse gently chides his greatest fan, Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), who's grown up reading the dime-store novels that had begun to valorize the outlaw when he was in his twenties. Already we've seen a glimpse of the other -- ruthless -- Jesse beating a man so brutally even his cohorts are shocked.
This psychotic streak becomes more pronounced as the gang splinters, and "Tom Howard" (the name James went by after his escape from Minnesota) is left to ponder which of his associates will betray him first. Even so, when he launches a preemptive strike it seems to be as much in sorrow as in anger.
Somber and ruminative, Pitt plays Jesse as a lonely man, isolated by his fearsome reputation and the patina of celebrity he carries with him -- and the bounty that goes with it. But this is really Casey Affleck's movie. Indeed, director Sam Fuller may have gotten there first, but "I Shot Jesse James" could serve as an alternate title for this film.
"People take me for a nincompoop," Bob Ford admits to Frank James early on. "I have qualities that don't come shining through."
That's putting it mildly. The new James gang is a makeshift bunch of dim opportunists and layabouts, mostly cousins and neighbors (they include Jeremy Renner, Chris Speers, Garret Dillahunt and Sam Rockwell as Bob's big brother Charlie), but even in this distinctly mild bunch Bob is a standing joke, the designated boob. Frank can only shake his head and give him a wide berth.
A desperado in his own imagining, Bob idolizes Jesse so fervently it's as if he wants to pull on the outlaw's boots in the morning. There is something abject in such hero-worship, and the wretched Robert Ford suffers mightily for it; this long (160-minute) movie describes his two years' in Jesse's orbit as a series of humiliations and indignities, most of his own making.
Affleck doesn't sentimentalize Bob's pinched and twisted narcissism, but he makes it clear the assassination was Ford's tragedy as well as Jesse's, a grand and infamous folly he would live to regret but could hardly avoid.
Dominik's previous film, "Chopper," was also dedicated to debunking a sociopathic pop idol, and featured a star-making turn from Eric Bana as the volatile sadist Mark Brandon Reid. Drawing heavily from Hansen's novel, especially for great gobs of eloquent, neo-Victorian voice-over narration, "The Assassination of Jesse James" is an altogether more reflective and self-conscious piece of mythic revisionism.
It's not just the narration but the patient, languid tempo that evokes the spirit of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon": the sense that a figure might just wander off into all that landscape and never find his way back home. (Kudos to cinematographer Roger Deakins for the gorgeous photography.)
After a single viewing (and that came five films into a Toronto festival day) I'm not entirely persuaded Dominik has pulled off the masterpiece he's shooting for, but it's a film of grave authority and fine artistry; I hesitate to make the comparison, but this is the most ambitious Western since "Heaven's Gate. " One hopes it doesn't meet the same commercial fate.
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