This languid Western, adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen, is mostly told in straightforward manner, with pointed prose narration (Hugh Ross as an authorial voice) that encourages us to pay attention to nuances of performance, affording glimpses into the minds of the antagonists but never settling on one consistent interpretation of events. Just once, there’s a kink as Jesse James (Brad Pitt) tells a story which interrupts the flow with a flashback that finishes off a scene which was earlier truncated. In the flashback, Jesse – at once canny and paranoid — pays a call on Ed Miller (Garrett Dillahunt, a Western face from two contrasting roles on Deadwood), a fairly slow-minded member of his gang, and is led by the man’s jitteriness to suggest they ‘take a ride’, a euphemism for going out into the middle of nowhere so he can plug the sweaty, luckless fool in the back. This incident, a single moment in James’ career of ruthless violence, is thrust on the audience as a conjurer forces a card on a mark while doing a trick. The unstressed point is that no one ever sang a song about ‘the dirty little coward’ who shot Ed Miller from behind … indeed, in the context of this film, Jesse is telling the story to Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the junior sidekick who will wind up shooting him in the back of the head.
Ford claimed he was in fear of his life and this telling of events stacks up credible evidence: at the end, Jesse is beginning to wonder what happened to his cousin Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner) — quite reasonably shot in the front by Ford — and seems to have invited Bob and his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell) into his home to keep them within easy killing distance. The whole world, and most previous Jesse James films, assume the Fords did it for the huge reward money, but this tries for a complex reading, which might or might not hold historical water (I suspect outlaws weren’t that complicated) but makes for gripping, potent drama. In the opening sequence, before Jesse and his soon-to-retire-in-ornery-disgust brother Frank (Sam Shepard) rob a train with a scratch band of wannabe outlaws, Bob wheedles his way into the gang, spooking Frank (who knows straight off there’s something amiss with the kid) but flattering Jesse (who says he’ll ride with anyone). The relationship between Jesse and Bob is set in a tangle of family and other loyalties that all propel the plot – here, the chain of events which leads to the assassination begins with a sub-plot Jesse and Bob never even know about as Wood is ticked off that a more charming outlaw Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider) has slept with his young stepmother (Kailin See) – but is still the beating heart of the film. In modern terms, Bob is a fan and a stalker, and some of his reasonings echo Valerie Solanas or Mark Chapman, as worship turns to envy (‘I don’t know if you want to be like me or be me’, says Jesse in a line all the reviews quote, which seems slightly too on-the-nose in director Andrew Dominik’s generally subtler script), disenchantment, resentment, terror and a simmering sense that someone needs to shoot Jesse James.
All credit to Pitt (in his best screen work to date — a role that needs to be played by a huge movie star willing to let a film be stolen by a lesser player hitherto best known as somebody’s brother) for making this Jesse such a mix of murderous violence, crotchety charisma and dead-inside doomed soul. Long before the film gets to the famous parlour (here, Jesse is dusting rather than straightening a picture), Pitt’s outlaw has done so many terrible things and hinted he’s capable of so many more, that you can’t help but feel Bob Ford didn’t shoot him soon enough. This ground has been raked over in films since the silent days, and Dominik deliberately evokes major versions like Jesse James (still the primal James Boys movie), The Return of Frank James (the scene in the theatre as the Fords recreate the shooting that made them famous but also despised), The Story of Jesse James (the house on its little hill and the Sunday crowds), The Long Riders (two folk songs from that soundtrack make it into the film), The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (the brutal botch of the robbery and the outlaws’ sense of their own celebrity) and I Shot Jesse James (though Sam Fuller got through this story in 81 minutes with no qualms of conscience about the deed). About the only precedent overlooked is the last Jesse James film, the already-forgotten American Outlaws.
There are also echoes of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid as a large cast and a geographically sprawling storyline narrow focus to a single room and the judicial murder of an unarmed martyr outlaw who seems complicit in his own death (not to mention the epilogue in which the killer is himself killed by another hate-filled nobody out for a reputation and accepts this judgment of fate as deserved). And The Left-Handed Gun in the dissociation between the dime-novel heroic version of the outlaw biography, which Bob has grown up on, and the handsome but murdering bastard Bob gets to know. Like many Westerns, it’s an overwhelmingly male film – Sarah-Louise Parker is almost a silent presence as Jesse’s wife and other women only get a few lines apiece – and has a deeply closeted sense of male love gone wrong in its central relationship (hitherto, more often a feature of Billy the Kid than Jesse James movies). Dominik, following his debut Chopper, elevates himself to a Western pantheon with this credit, which is as good a movie in its genre since the 1970s heyday of reflective, melancholy oaters. Roger Deakins’ imaginative cinematography sometimes has a fluid haze as if shot through the imperfect glass of the 1880s – there’s the typical sense of the great, oppressive landscape and sudden acts of transgressive violence, but he also knows to keep a focus on the expressive faces of a cast who are uniformly terrific from the above-the-line stars to the tiniest walk-on cowpoke.