Calling all pundits. It's a baffling caprice of the zeitgeist to have two studio westerns released in the same month, 30-odd years after the genre basically gave up the ghost. James Mangold's better-than-competent 3:10 to Yuma has provided a harmonica fanfare for something more ambitious and polarizing. Written and directed by 40-year-old New Zealand–born Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a deeply, unsentimentally nostalgic movie. Gritty but mythic, a dirty western with clean shirts, Jesse James is a bold, even wacky, reinvention — a psychological chamber drama in which the wide open spaces are geographic as well as mental. Unfolding mainly in the aftermath of the James Gang's last holdup, the movie specifically concerns the paranoid relationship between charismatic Jesse (Brad Pitt) and starstruck Bob Ford (Casey Affleck), the Judas who will murder him. The relationship between crime and celebrity clearly interests Dominik; his only other feature, 2000's Chopper, was a portrait of an Australian career criminal — the self-dramatizing author of nine autobiographical bestsellers, one titled How to Shoot Friends and Influence People. That's more or less an ironic description of Bob Ford's fate. A year after shooting Jesse, he's re-enacting the deed on a New York stage, condemned to relive his crime until, inevitably, he's dispatched by another irate nobody.
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