Grade: 96 (A)
The film chronicles the fall of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), the famous outlaw who became a legend far long before his death. The James Gang is falling apart, on a final train-robbery before disbanding. It features Jesse’s wise, ornery older brother Frank (Sam Shepard), his short-tempered cousin Wood Hite (a pre-fame Jeremy Renner), suave cohort Dick Liddle (Paul Schneider), slow Ed Miller (Garret Dillahunt), and Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). Charley has brought along his skittish little brother Bob (Casey Affleck), a 19-year-old kid who’s grown up idolizing the legendary Jesse James and who believes he’s destined for great things. Only in his mid-thirties himself, Jesse looks and acts older than his age. Years of robbing, shooting, and being shot at has taken a lot out of him. He has two children and a wife. And as a legend, he has reason to suspect that the world is out to get him. But he starts to suspect his friends, the former members of his gang, anyone whose paths he may cross. Bob, meanwhile, has to deal with being underestimated by anyone and everyone he meets as a boy, a weirdo, and a “nincompoop”, as he says. When the two share scenes, it’s a story of a man and his idol, one enamored while the other is alternatively annoyed, amused, or flat out creeped out. And as the Ford brothers get closer to the increasingly paranoid Jesse, their options narrow.
The film is populated with colorful characters and tangents, some funny (Frank James and Dick Liddle are particularly fun), some sad (Bob’s relationship with a saloon singer played by Zooey Deschanel late in the film, Charley as a man forced into terrible circumstances by his brother). But the film is undoubtedly driven by the two leads: Pitt is frightening and sad as Jesse James, a man who already seems like a ghost on this earth, while Affleck is wide-eyed and fidgety without ever seeming over the top (Shia LaBouef was initially considered for the role; now that would have been terrible). He becomes more jealous and hurt as the film goes on, and he seems as a man with only one choice left if he wants to survive, let alone become a legend. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, but don’t be fooled: he is the film’s protagonist, and its heart. First he’s obsessed with the legend he grew up loving, then he’s humiliated and frightened by the mean-spirited reality behind his idol, and finally a man on his way out of his sad, disappointing life.