Director Andrew Dominik adopts a style throughout his new psychological western The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford that he believes will give the film the weight and seriousness of an epic. The movie runs a stately 160 minutes not because there is too much action or too many sequences, but because conversations are edited so that protracted silences occur between every line of dialogue. For the first 30 minutes, as the members of the gang are introduced while they plan and execute a train robbery, Dominik is at his best. The deliberate tone and slow pace make this a unique and rewarding sequence, but the next 90 minutes of the film eats away that interest. Casey Affleck embodies the creepy stalker elements of Robert Ford with great skill, but his boyish face keeps him from ever being truly threatening -- perfect casting considering what the director does with the character. Ford's obsession with Jesse James (played as alternately psychotic or brooding by Brad Pitt) manages to be complete, without being in any way sexual. He's a boy trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. His performance, in fact each performance throughout, is solid, but they are undermined by the film's pace. The editing style, which is obviously purposeful, hampers the film's protracted middle because while the film suggests many reasons why Ford kills Jesse, it never seems to take a stand on the issue. Jealousy, fear, duty, and a desire for celebrity are all presented as possibilities, but often these different motivations seem to conflict directly with each other. Over dinner with the Ford family, James humiliates the 20-year-old Robert, and one would think that his actions from then on stem from a desire for revenge, but even after the embarrassment, Ford is seen sniffing James' bedding. A film can be open-ended and open to interpretation, yet still present an explanation as to why everyone was interested in the material to begin with. The movie plays like the director wanted to make the film in order to figure out his own feeling about Robert, but never came to any resolution.
The final 20 minutes, after Ford shoots Jesse and must live with the consequences, bring the proceedings back to life. As Robert revels in his notoriety, the viewer can draw so many parallels with what went on before that one can start to see that the material might have supported the stately rhythm. As it is, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a failure, but the combination of ideas, however unformed, and the style make it a genuine attempt at something new -- which makes the film more interesting than most failures.