"Lately, I've been becoming a problem for myself," admits Jesse James (Brad Pitt) to his friend Bob Ford (Casey Affleck). He's understating the case considerably: Jesse has become a problem for everyone, least of all himself. The charismatic outlaw's mean streak has come under the influence of paranoia, perhaps even insanity, but most of the time he's still good cheer incarnate, attractive to everyone around him.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a beautifully shot film, with gorgeous Midwestern vistas and constantly inventive visual metaphors. This is only Andrew Dominik's second film, but already he's discovered something about the perpetually boyish Pitt that nobody else has bothered to look for: He's the perfect illustration for Hamlet's caveat that "one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." With the advent of CGI and ever-widening boundaries for disturbing content, filmmakers have come up with some fascinating portrayals of villainy, from Peter Jackson's vision of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings to Alfonso Cuaron's dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
None of them, though, are quite as scary as Jesse, because none of them are nearly as attractive, or as pitiable. Dominik shows us scenes from Jesse's violent life when he clearly understands the depths to which he's sunk. It's impossible not to want to reach out to Jesse in those moments, even though he does plenty of shooting in this R-rated film, and the filmmakers pay careful attention to its effects on the human body.
Mostly, though, the film frightens us by obscuring Jesse's motivations, telling the tale from the resentful, admiring perspective of Ford, who has grown up on fabricated tales of Jesse James, the gentleman bandit. Affleck has been quietly outperforming his older brother Ben for a while; here, his remarkably self-effacing performance is a real star turn. Bob is constantly ill at ease; ashamed of himself and of his odd, asexual love for a man who has no friends, only subordinates. The film's prosaic title underscores the complexity of Bob's motivations. When he shot Jesse, was he a coward? Was he jealous? Was he merely afraid?