Cinematographer Roger Deakins should get an Oscar nomination for his beautiful work here. Each scene in this 160-minute epic Western is gorgeously lit and framed ever so sumptuously. With none of that modern, handheld, verite camera-style that today's filmmakers are so fond, no, writer-director Andrew Dominik instead embraces the lovely idea of allowing scenes to breath, and allowing audiences to absorb rapturous images and remember them.
The best sequence involves Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, as his gang robs a train in September of 1881 in Missouri. It's a nighttime heist. Jesse places his ear against the tracks. He sees rocks near the metal rails start to vibrate. The movement of inanimate objects summoning impending trouble is a repeated visual motif first employed here. Deakins and Dominik make excellent use of beams of light, as out of the total darkness the headlight of the locomotive comes roaring toward us, moving right to left, beams of light piercing through breaks and cracks in the surrounding trees. The 19th century steam train comes to a screeching halt, the grinding metal and whistle sounds ringing. The train stops, sweeping the screen with a thick cloud of smoke. Out of which, the masked bandit, Jesse James, emerges walking toward us in glorious slow motion.
The story then follows Jesse James from this point for the next eight months until April 1882 when James was shot dead. Dominik interjects short narrated vignettes, which advance the plot, shot in a hazy fish eye kind of lens that blurs out the edges of the frame and focuses only the center of the screen. Along with a haunting musical score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the deep regal narrator's voice in these vignettes is omniscient as well as ominous, and helps convey a sense of dread and terror that we know the film is building toward, that we feel in almost every single scene, thanks in part to some great acting. In one scene, Brad Pitt says, "There's no peace when Jesse James is around," and you know it to be true.
At first Casey Affleck, the younger brother to actor Ben Affleck (Pearl Harbor and Sum of All Fears) plays Bob Ford, a 19-year-old boy who idolizes Jesse James and who wants to be just like him. Bob Ford starts as a deep-seated hero worshipper who wants to be around Jesse James all the time. And, while Jesse James was sensationalized in newspapers and in dime-store novels as a person to be looked up to by many people including youngsters, Jesse James was a villain. Like with any celebrity, there are two sides to this man and not all sides admirable, and I think Brad Pitt pulls it very well and was the most perfect choice to portray him.
However, the story reaches a point where it becomes mostly about who Bob Ford is and it's here that the acting kudos must go to Casey Affleck. Everything you feel about Jesse James really comes from his eyes. Affleck's Bob Ford is a wannabe sidekick who has books under his bed of Jesse James, stashed away like porn magazines. When in his presence, Bob Ford studies Jesse James, looks on him almost with desire. In his alone times, Bob Ford tries to emulate Jesse, but in almost every encounter, he's a coward, not really assertive, always ingratiating, always the bridesmaid, never the bride, until a series of events changes the way Ford sees Jesse.
Brad Pitt is of course handsome, mannerly and well dressed all in black. He's the devil may care, slightly scruffy yet still charming and totally winning. But once Bob Ford changes, you start to see what he sees, that Jesse James does have just under the surface a snake that could strike you dead in an instant without warning. Bob Ford is scared of this man.
And, you feel it, especially in the scenes toward the end of the second act. There's one in particular where Bob Ford, his brother Charley and an associate named Dick Liddil are having dinner with Jesse James and there's a secret hanging over Bob's head that you can tell they don't want revealed to Jesse. The tension in the dialogue and in the faces of each of the actors is so well done, that I along with the actors was on edge.
There's another scene just like it toward the film's climax where Bob and Charley Ford are at Jesse James' house and are again afraid of Jesse learning a secret. Dominik again utilizes that visual motif of the movement of an inanimate object summoning impending trouble brilliantly. This time, he focuses on a coffee cup and it's the most terrifying image of a coffee cup I've ever seen.
Unlike 2007's other major western, 3:10 to Yuma, this film doesn't have nor need over the top action scenes or Michael Mann-inspired shootouts. The violence is instead more subtle, surprising and artistically done. A couple of kill shots are done with the victim in the foreground and the shooter out of focus in the background and all to dead calm, no music, as if to punctuate the gun blast and subsequent bullet wound explosion.
Deakins and Dominik photograph blood and corpses just as well as they do absorbing American Midwest landscapes. Amazing cloud-filled skies, time lapsed to soar over us, and vast snow-covered rolling prairies as chilling as they are eye-popping dominate. There's also one shot of Jesse James riding on horseback up a hill with the setting sun cutting the top-third of the screen's horizon line that's so haunting that it sticks in your mind, and considering what Jesse James did in the scene previous, it's visually, perfectly poetic.
Standout supporting characters include Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) as Charley Ford, the idiotic and playful older brother to Bob Ford. Mary-Louise Parker (Angels in America and Weeds) as Jesse's dutiful wife Zee. Jeremy Renner (Dahmer and 28 Weeks Later) as Jesse's bitter and temperatmental cousin Wood Hite. Paul Schneider (Elizabethtown and Lars and the Real Girl) as Dick Liddil who's probably the closest to being actually like Jesse in terms of intelligence and charm but who lacks the edge, and Zooey Deschanel (The Good Girl and Failure to Launch) as Dorothy, a dancer who befriends Bob Ford later in life. I loved this cast.One Star out of Five.