Jesse James and Western noir
In other movies, he was portrayed by his own son as well as Tyrone Power, Roy Rogers, Robert Duvall, Kris Kristofferson, and Colin Farrell, with his brother portrayed by Henry Fonda and Johnny Cash among others. Even the lengthy title about the latest (but surely not the last) movie about him is very revealing- not just that we know that an outlaw/cultural figure is going to get killed but also 'assassinated' (as in JFK, MLK and Lennon) and that his killer ain't no hero, at least according to the legend. Maybe it was that long title that threw audiences off and that's a shame because one of the best movies and soundtracks from last year was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (recently out on DVD).
To start with, each of the leading men are riveting in their roles. Pitt gives one of his best performances as James, showing him to be alternately generous, scheming and psychotic. Casey Affleck's Ford is a green little toadie who first idolizes James and then grows disgusted and angered by him- after collecting books and newspaper clipping about James for years, he's sorely disappointed by the man he actually meets and befriends (and eventually kills). Both characters are always on the edge and mistrustful of each other so that even for over two and a half hours of the movie, each scene is gripping, even when you know how it's going to wind up in the end. Even after the murder, the movie doesn't sag as we see the extended regret and conflicted emotions that haunt Ford later on.
The music is equally memorable, matching the range of strangled emotions in the film. Written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (a long-time collaborator who worked with Cave in the Bad Seeds and now Grinderman), the music provides subtle, dark instrumental themes throughout the movie, epitomized by a four-note-motif that begins with a disturbed, sad cello sound and then gets balanced by a sweet sweep of strings- the same piece appropriately follows James and Ford as they take their fatal journey.
One of the most moving scenes pits Cave against Affleck. It's over a year after the killing and Ford has been in a theatrical production where night after night, he dramatically recreates the murder in front of packed houses alongside his brother (who soon commits suicide in regret). In a tavern, Cave plays a minstrel who sings the famous ballad named after James which repeatedly calls Ford a coward. Ford stands at the bar, stewing in anger until he fires a shot at the floor and announces to a stunned crowd who he is. He corrects the song in that James had two kids and not three, before he drunkenly stumbles to the ground and the bartender tells him to get lost.
That brings to mind another great, tortured Western, John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the famous quote at the end, especially noteworthy after Ford's disillusionment of James the man and James the legend: "If you have to chose between the truth and a legend, print the legend."