Given the funereal vibe and dusky imagery of Andrew Dominik’s gloriously depressive Western, it would be easy to just slap a revisionist-oater label on the movie without questioning what, exactly, is being revised. The concept of a filthy, immoral frontier is as clichéd as bad guys in black hats, and whatever heroic qualities were once attributed to Jesse James (Pitt) have long since been corrected. Then it becomes clear what’s being given a fresh perspective here: the reputation of one of history’s most infamous scaredy-cats. Watching the legendary train robber’s uncontrollably violent tendencies, you don’t think of Robert Ford (Affleck) as a yellow-belly, but as a man forced to put down a rabid dog.
That unique take on the myth—as well as the film’s ironically cannibalistic notions of celebrity—is enough to make Assassination intriguing. Yet it’s Dominik’s uncompromising, uncommercial vision and the two leads that give the story such a wonderfully wounded grandeur. Despite one copycat shot from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the director is more interested in evoking the best Westerns of the ’70s than in constructing a pastiche. Dominik’s no stranger to getting great performances out of actors (see 2000’s Chopper), yet what he brings out in both Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck is astonishing. Watching the former’s charismatic sociopath slowly develop a death wish and the latter turn Ford’s jellyfish-like fortitude into self-destructive resolve is enough to make you feel that other filmmakers haven’t taken advantage of their talent.