A while back, maybe a year or two, I saw some photographs in the newspaper that revealed a new wax likeness of Brad Pitt for the famous Madame Tussaud’s museum.

My how far he’s come. It seems like only yesterday that a feisty actor with a roguish grin showed up in Thelma and Louise, and then earned comparisons to the young Robert Redford in A River Runs Through It. Since then, Pitt has blazed his own trail through Hollywood history and become an uber-icon. His personal choices have thrown fuel on the fire of his celebrity, so that it has become almost impossible to discuss his movies without being sidetracked with talk about his tabloid coverage.

You could almost swear that it isn’t Brad Pitt we’re watching in Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seems more like we’re watching the wax statue. It’s as though Pitt’s journey into legendary status has hardened him, caused him to flee from his sex-symbol status. In 2006’s Babel, he seemed determined to show us the deepening lines around his eyes and the bruises and regrets within them. And here, his laughter — once playful and charismatic laugh — is bitter and sneering. It’s as if the Legend of Brad Pitt has caused the actor to retreat from his own skin, burrowing inward. Weary of what people believe him to be, or want him to be, he leaves us with an enigma: the familiar shell, minus the youthful spirit.

This is, of course, all speculation. But it may have something to do with why Brad Pitt is the perfect choice to play Jesse James in this film. He has exactly what the role demands. I don’t know, really, whether to praise this as the peak of his career as an actor (which has included some very fine performances indeed), or if it’s really just Pitt being himself and letting us consider the connections between himself and that other American legend whose reputation became too big to bear.

Whatever the case, Pitt’s presence is both a distraction and a benefit to the movie. We can’t avoid considering the baggage he brings to the movie. But we also cannot deny how he imbues long, quiet, meditative scenes with drama and menace. There’s a subterranean intelligence behind that poker face. His restraint teases us into asking questions about the character. That’s good acting.

In fact, every aspect of this film invites us to think things through, rather than merely basking in the entertainment. Watching Assassination feels like reading a detailed novel about the Old West. That’s because it’s adapted from a novel by Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy. Most big-screen adaptations are reinventions, only very loosely based on some ideas from a text. Assassination makes us feel as if we’re turning the pages of a weighty hardbound volume illustrated by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ vivid imagery. Each picture lingers, letting us examine the faces of the cast, the subtleties in their expressions, and the exquisite details of their costumes and locations.

It begins with what is, most likely, the most beautiful train robbery ever filmed. It’s a late night in 1881 when the James Gang pulls off “one last job” on a magnificent passenger train. The robbery takes its toll, not just on the audience but on the robbers themselves. Frank James (Sam Shepard) has the good sense to walk away and stick to his word — he surrenders the life of crime.

But his younger brother Jesse soldiers on, intimidating and manipulating his gang of greedy fools while he slips through the clutches of the authorities like a ghost. But we know where this is headed — the gang’s coming apart at the seams.

At first glance, you might guess Assassination’s slow-burn storytelling was the work of Terrence Malick. Deakins’ exquisite cinematography gives us a view back through time as if filming through antique glass. But the imagery, while enthralling, is not as eloquent as Malick’s; it looks good, but never offers much in the way of metaphor.

No, it’s the performances that make this picture compelling in spite of its snail’s-pace narrative. Casey Affleck, playing Robert Ford, is the real surprise here, unexpectedly anchoring the picture as an insecure hero-worshipper who believes he can become a legend in his own right. And the versatile Sam Rockwell (Matchstick Men, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) continues to impress, playing Robert’s older brother Charlie with a delicate balance of goofball humor and sweaty-palmed terror. (In this viewer’s opinion, Rockwell’s turn is the most memorable and complicated in the film.)

The supporting cast look as if they stepped out of archival photographs. Mary-Louise Parker does a great deal with her few moments onscreen as Jesse’s wife. Jeremy Renner is frightfully brash as Wood Hite, Paul Schneider makes Dick Liddil arrogant and unnerving, and Ed Miller plays Garret Dillahunt with such fear and trembling that you fear he’ll implode before your very eyes. Zooey Deschanel and Alison Elliott both make strong impressions as women with the toughness to endure a rough world of violent male egos.

And then, again, there’s Pitt — utterly convincing as a man hollowed out by his own scandalous legacy. Most of his performance is in his fitful tongue and jaw, as if Jesse can’t quite spit out the foul aftertaste of his actions. When the title’s promise is fulfilled, it seems more a surrender than an execution.

For many, the film will go on too long. But that has more to do with viewers’ impatience in an age of fast-paced entertainment than it has to do with any flaw in the film’s artistry. Dominick understands that there is much more to the story beyond the event mentioned in the title. The subject of the film is not How Jesse Fell. There are, in fact, several “subjects” in this film. We find ourselves considering some of the same territory that Clint Eastwood pondered in Unforgiven. We watch how men can be manipulated and deceived by fear. We watch Robert Ford, and we see that even justice can be damaging if it is carried out in a wrongful spirit. And then there’s that theme so suddenly prevalent on the big screen: the corrupting nature of violence, even well-intentioned violence.

This is one of those films that will probably be considered a box office failure, due to audiences who want their shoot-em-ups to be fun and frivolous. But over the years, Assassination will earn the respect it deserves. You can be among the first to appreciate it in the best possible context… in a theater, on the big screen.

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