A frequently stunning work about celebrity and hero worship, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford takes the legend of the famous bandit and turns it into a tale of a superstar and his stalker. Impeccably shot, cast and directed, this is a truly impressive film from sophomore writer-director Andrew Dominik (whose previous credit was the 2000 Aussie crime drama Chopper), but suffers from an unfortunate case of elephantiasis.

Based on Ron Hansen’s 1997 novel of the same name, Assassination stars Casey Affleck (outstanding in a breakout performance) as the callow youth Robert Ford, who has worshiped outlaw legend Jesse James (Brad Pitt, scary and charismatic) for years, and is determined to become a member of his gang. The film takes place during the last year of James’ life, when he and brother Frank (Sam Shepard) pull off their final train robbery, after which Jesse mainly eludes the law and guns down gang members he believes to be untrustworthy.

A melancholy psychopath who seems to give everyone the jitters, James is wary of Ford at first, but over a period of time welcomes him into his outlaw family. Yet it eventually becomes obvious that Ford, a creepy kid who on several occasions bemoans his fate as a nobody, has bigger fish to fry: He wants to create his own myth by killing the person who is arguably the most famous man in America.

Told in a deliberate style, with lots of pregnant pauses and beautifully shot landscapes, Assassination moves to a rhythm of its own, one that owes more to literature than film. This is emphasized by the extensive use of voiceover, the narrator reciting extended passages from Hansen’s artfully crafted novel. For the most part, this works in creating an elegiac atmosphere and richness of texture that are quite stunning. Aided immeasurably by Roger Deakins’ superb photography, Assassination often plays like a historical fever dream of epic proportions, dealing with issues ranging from fame to media overkill and the psycho-pathology of villainy.

But about halfway through the film it becomes all too clear that Dominik just doesn’t know when to stop. There are too many dread-filled moments, too many sequences in which actors sit around reacting—and reacting some more—before they get around to actual discourse. The director seems so in love with his languorous pacing, he’s incapable of cutting the five or ten seconds in any number of scenes that could have given the film a more manageable running time.
In the scheme of things, however, this amounts to little more than a quibble. Ultimately, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a fascinating, literary-based work that succeeds as both art and genre film. If Dominik can learn to forego some of his excesses, his next picture should be a real doozy.