Put in simplest terms, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is a film whose reach exceeds its grasp. Hugely ambitious and not without moments of success, this indulgent 2 hour and 40 minute epic ends up as unwieldy as its elongated title. It's a movie in love with itself, and few things are more fatal than that.
That long title comes courtesy of Ron Hansen's novel about the death of the celebrated 19th century desperado, already a character in some 30 films, a book that so captivated writer-director Andrew Dominik and star Brad Pitt that they seemingly would not rest until they brought it to the screen.
In truth, that 1983 novel is a haunting work that adds beautiful writing and psychological acuity to the familiar dramatic dilemma of why fellow outlaw Ford (Casey Affleck in a much-talked-about performance) murdered a man he considered his friend. While historians and biographers saw the size of the reward -- the equivalent of perhaps a million dollars today -- as the key factor, Hansen envisioned a near-Shakespearean tragedy of jealousy, paranoia, thwarted ambition and hero worship curdling and turning sour.
While some of that complexity has made it to the film, "The Assassination of Jesse James" turns out to be the latest in a long string of adaptations seduced by a book's literary qualities only to learn the hard lesson that seeing is not believing, that things that work on the page do not necessarily transfer to the screen.
What transfers best is Pitt's intriguing performance as the outlaw king, which won him the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival. The casually charismatic aspect of Jesse James (described by novelist Hansen as someone who "ate all the air in your lungs and the thoughts right out of your mind") is second nature to Pitt, but there is also an air of unsettling mystery around James and, as the film progresses, expressions of darker things as well.
But, despite getting first billing in the title, this film is much less Jesse James' story than it is Robert Ford's, and that is a problem. Not with Affleck's performance, which is precisely what the character calls for, but with the nature of the character.
Ford turns out to be one of the most off-putting individuals you never want to meet, someone who immediately lives up to the way he introduces himself (in book and film) to Jesse's brother Frank: "Folks sometimes take me for a nincompoop on account of the shabby first impression I make." So shabby that Frank James (Sam Shepherd at his orneriest) speaks for the audience when he replies, "I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."
While a character like this -- someone who, all evidence to the contrary, fully believes he is "destined for great things" -- can perversely fascinate in a book, film is a different medium. Spending hour after hour watching this callow leech so worm his way into James' life that the outlaw himself says, "do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me," is close to torture.
Even worse is the considerable time spent with the rivalries and contretemps of the fatuous misfits and lowlife losers that are the best James can do for a gang in these last days of his career. While the women in this film, notably Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse's wife, Zee, have almost nothing to say, writer-director Dominik can't get enough of the painfully authentic period dialogue of his boys. But with the exception of Frank James (who has the good sense to leave the film almost immediately), these feeble nonentities come off as a whiny 19th century version of the guys from "Entourage," or maybe the "Dumb and Dumber" version of "Mean Girls." With guns.
Making all this more difficult to digest is the self-consciously artistic style that Australian filmmaker Dominik, who made his reputation with the super-kinetic action film "Chopper," has unexpectedly adopted. Though cinematographer Roger Deakins has produced some remarkable images, the directing style here is unrelievedly languid and overblown. Dominik likely had something like Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" in mind, but what he has achieved is closer to the unfairly denigrated but still disappointing "Heaven's Gate."
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about "The Assassination of Jesse James," however, is that a shift in narrative direction late in the second half stops you from writing off the film completely. A more terrifying, coldblooded and psychotic side to James emerges, and, partially as a reaction to that, Ford's character changes as well, and that combination creates a more focused dynamic.
Partisans will argue that without the leisurely tedium of "Assassination's" first two hours this involvement would not have happened, but that is the voice of excess speaking. As it is, the film's ending serves less as a triumphant capstone than a melancholy taste of what might have been if drama had not taken a back seat to artifice and indulgence.
"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." MPAA rating: R for strong violence and brief sexual references. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. At the ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 464-4226, and the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8233.