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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Year: 2007
Director: Andrew Dominick
Producer: Brad Pitt/Ridley Scott/Nick Scott
Writer: Andrew Dominick
Cast: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Mary Louise Parker, Jeremy Renner, Sam Shepard
If there's one genre Americans love, it's the revisionist western. Not the kind about injuns, stagecoaches and the sanitised West of John Wayne and John Ford, but the reality of the American pioneer – the poverty, the mud and snow, the isolation and the true menace of lawlessness.

Americans still love the Western because the frontier settler is one of their most enduring legends, the icon of how they still believe themselves to be. It's up to a new breed of director to pick up the mantle on westerns that are more poetic, sadder and more dramatic, so how ironic that the unwieldy-named The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is the second film from Australian director Andrew Chopper Dominick.

Dominick, who also wrote the script, has made the most lyrical of the new breed of western. Vast spaces infuse everything – from the stunning vistas of the landscape to the stilted conversation among the uneducated, savage characters of the late 19th century.

It isn't for everyone. Audiences in search of cowboys and Indians shoot-em-ups will be disappointed, but it's a filmgoer's film, and if you're so inclined, this beautiful and poignant film will touch you.

As one of the Hollywood alpha males, it's often easy to forget what a good actor Brad Pitt is, but it's Casey Affleck – younger brother of Ben – as Robert Ford who owns the screen as the stammering man-child who worships Jesse and sells him out, grinning idiotically and stumbling over words.

At the height of their mystique, the James gang disbands when Jesse's elder brother Frank leaves in the night. The crew he and Jesse put together to execute their final hit – a train robbery – scatter to the four winds and Jesse returns to his family, inexplicably inviting Robert along with him and fulfilling the boy's lifelong dream to be with his hero after the cheap Jesse James paperbacks he's always read.

It's hard to follow at times, with so many cousins, cohorts and other characters you'll lose track not just of who they are but what they have to do with each other – but every frame exudes an unmistakable air of high quality and loving craftsmanship.

At almost three hours, it occasionally skirts close to being boring, but it's a rambling epic of shifting allegiances and intrigue that keeps you hooked. After the pivotal event, the films strangely shifts tone, tracing Robert Ford's fame instead of James' and seeming to comment on the nature of the media and public perception – or at least the telegraph-era approximation of it. It could be viewed as extraneous if you were expecting the Brad-Pitt-as-Jesse-James-show, but it has the same meandering beauty as the rest of the movie.

Assassination deserves the time just to see what a visionary director can do with this constantly rebooted genre.

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