New Zealand director Andrew Dominik's adaptation of Ron Hansen's acclaimed 1983 historical novel is a self-conscious throwback to revisionist Westerns of the 1970s: disillusioned, contemplative and committed to debunking popular myths of the heroic American West.
1881, St. Joseph, Missouri: While 34-year-old Jesse James (Brad Pitt) continues to earn his living by holding up banks and trains, Jesse has also established a respectable identity as businessman "Thomas Howard," a man with an easy manner, a fine, churchgoing wife (Zee, played by Mary-Louise Parker), and two young children. But Jesse has been an outlaw too long to ever rest easy, and behind his easy smile and approachable manner, he's paranoid and quick-tempered, ruthless and unpredictable. With the exception of his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), the old gang is dead or in jail, and when Frank retires in hopes of enjoying a quiet old age, Jesse is left to carry on with a sorry collection of second-raters, including his prickly cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), preening ladies' man Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), hard-luck case Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt) and none-too-bright rube Charley (Sam Rockwell). For all their limitations, they're vividly aware of the contrast between the dashing gunslinger of popular imagination and the damaged, dangerous man they're riding with. But Charley's starry-eyed little brother, 19-year-old Bob (Casey Affleck), has been reading cheap Western novels and collecting clippings about the outlaw since he was a child and wants nothing more than to be part of the James gang. And while Jesse sees the shady sycophant behind the highfalutin vocabulary and obsequious smile, he's vain enough to string along his biggest fan.
Dominik's CHOPPER (2000) gave Eric Bana — then a TV comic unknown outside New Zealand — the role of a lifetime in swaggering, self-aggrandizing real-life Australian thug "Chopper" Read, a self-proclaimed modern-day outlaw who would have been right at home on a frontier where pulp writers transformed the exploits of bad, bad men into vicarious thrills for tenderfoots. Had Pitt brought the same sinister vigor to his performance, the first two hours of this film might have been an enthralling psychological sparring match rather than a stately slog through iconic images and meandering, repetitive dialogue. Maybe the life was edited out of it in the two years between shooting and release, or maybe Dominik was simply overwhelmed by the outsized myths of the West, but the film only comes to life after James' death, when Ford quite literally takes center stage. Sixty years earlier Sam Fuller, a tabloid reporter turned pulp filmmaker, pared the same material to its core in I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949), killing James in the first 20 minutes in and focusing on Ford's bizarre trip from celebrity to notoriety. Dominik should have taken note. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh