By John H. Foote
American outlaw Jesse James has been portrayed many times on the big screen by such actors as Tyrone Power, Robert Wagner, Robert Duvall, and Colin Farrell, but no one touches Brad Pitt’s performance as the gunman in this 2007 film. Pitt captures the unpredictability James was said to have possessed, friends one moment, then as deadly as a rattlesnake the next. And he was dangerous, no question. When he pulled his gun out of his holster chances are someone was going to die. Was he psychotic? Likely, but he hid it well, blending in with the population of whatever town he had his family staying, so completely that he often shared drinks with the very men hunting him.
He ran his gang with his more cautious brother Frank (Sam Shepard) with an iron fist, deciding what banks or trains they would rob, who was involved, and who did what. If any sort of betrayal was suspected, the gang member disappeared, shot likely by Jesse. By all accounts, he was a loving and loyal father and husband, his wife aware of his identity, and of course, his gang knew but said nothing.
When Charlie Ford (Sam Rockwell) brought his younger brother Bob (Casey Affleck) into the world of Jesse, the outlaw befriended the starstruck younger man, but could just as often hurt him with exclusion and insults.
Bob has followed Jesse’s exploits since childhood, reading every storybook, newspaper article and early comic books, all stored safely under his bed. He sees similarities no one else does that he believes connect him to Jesse, though he is not sure why. At one point, Jesse sits prone in a bathtub and Bob approaches from behind when Jesse says, “I cannot decide if you want to be like me, or be me?” to which Bob cannot truly answer. There is, however, no doubt the two men are locked in a curious dance towards death from the first time they lay eyes on each other.
And of course, Bob shoots Jesse in the back as he stands gunless on a chair to dust a picture in his house. Terrified Jesse is going to kill him and his brother, Jesse acts first, betraying a friend, or dispatching an enemy who was going to kill him first.
Instant fame greets Bob and he revels in it, loving every minute of it as Jesse’s family calls for his head. On the New York stage, Bob re-enacts the killing over and over, with Charlie as Jesse. Haunted by the killing, Charlie begins to take on more and more of Jesse’s mannerisms and characteristics, frightening Bob. When called a coward by an audience member he leaps into the crowd to defend his name, but the more he travels, the more he realizes people believe him to be cowardly having shot Jesse in the back.
Only in the last moments of his life does Bob truly realize how deep the hatred for him truly runs, expecting applause for having killed Jesse. He admits to himself and his lady he missed Jesse, their friendship and time together. It seems Bob cannot ever be free of the ghost of Jesse, which is also beside him, always close, forever in the landscape of his mind. What Bob did not realize was that he loved Jesse as much as he feared him. With Jesse gone a part of Bob has died too, his hero, his leader, his friend.
Brad Pitt is unsettling as Jesse – dangerous, paranoid, confident when not concerned with who is moving against him. Pitt has always been a fine actor, but here he emerges into greatness. There is a real menace in his very presence, glances but especially when he stares right at someone in the film. His forced laughter among his friends is frightening as it takes on the rattle of a snake before it strikes, and when he drops in on anyone, it spells danger for them. Yet we also see the tender Jesse, the loving father, and husband, the loyal cousin searching for his missing relative. When Bob stands and points his gun, a gift from Jesse, the outlaw sees his assassins reflection in the glass of the painting and knows it is coming. It all seems inevitable. Pitt gives the deepest, richest performance of his career, and deserved to be nominated for an Academy Award.
As Bob Ford, the gifted Casey Affleck is nothing short of astonishing. He captures the hero worship of Ford towards Jesse, but beneath that is the desperation to be a part of something, in this case, the James gang. Jesse is exactly right when he states that Bob wants to be him, which catches Bob off guard. He really did not understand how great Jesse impacted his life until his hero was dead. The performance earned the actor a much-deserved nomination for Best Supporting Actor and was part of his breakthrough year. In addition, Supporting Actor awards came from the National Society of Film Critics and the National Board Of Review. This same year Affleck received rave reviews in both this and his brother Ben’s dark drama Gone Baby Gone (2007). Nine years later he would give one of the screen’s greatest performances in Manchester By the Sea (2016) for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Sam Rockwell and Sam Shepard are both very good in their roles and, though fleeting, Jeremy Remner gives a nice performance as a doomed member of the gang.
Director Andrew Dominick beautifully captures the wide-open spaces of the Old West, a place where houses might be ten or more miles apart and towns were teeming with activity and growth. Towns were growing fast as technology came to the west, the days of the gunfighter and lawlessness were coming to an end.
Roger Deakins beautiful cinematography gives the viewer they are somehow glimpsing into the past. Burnished lighting dominates, the glass near shimmers with movement, and there is a charge of electricity on the screen whenever Jesse enters a room. Working in step perfectly with his director, Deakins creates a stunning vision of the Old West that is hyper-realistic in its authenticity and raw beauty.
One of the greatest westerns ever made, among the finest films of the New Millennium, it is a brilliant film that brings to life a legend.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.