Dust flies in the wake of “3:10 to Yuma,” which blends the moral quest of the classic Western and the nihilism of revisionist entries by Leone and Peckinpah for a continuously exciting result. This remake, based on an adaptation of a 1953 Elmore Leonard story, reminds audiences that we shouldn’t lose our taste for this putatively “dead” genre, even if, at times, “3:10’s” use of violence feels less like a unique statement than a bid for the film to be this year’s “The Departed.” The film follows lower-profile but capable re-imaginings of the West, from John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s gritty outback Western “The Proposition” and the scathing border patrol critique “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” lensed by Tommy Lee Jones and scripted by the prolific Guillermo Arriaga (“21 Grams,” “Babel”).
As the West has been revived using various sensibilities, another new entry, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” harks back to American folklore. Before learning of the historical Jesse James, American youth know from oral tradition that a Judas shot him in the back while he dusted a picture. While “The Assassination,” based on an historical novel by Ron Hansen, looks to James’ last days to recall the elegiac tales and ballads of the downed folk hero, this film is really a character study of the “coward,” Robert Ford, who took him down.
As it opens, the film steps away from humanizing James, as the voiceover narration is really depicting a legend more than introducing a lead character. Writer-director Andrew Dominik opts for an expressionistic style to depict James (a rugged, well-cast Brad Pitt), a myth materialized into flesh onscreen. Yet this is James just before his swansong, as he has grown tired and ready to hang up his holster to become a full-time family man. His trademark black suit makes him appear like a weary soldier who can never shed his uniform.
Dominik’s dreamy tone turns surreal when the James gang, led by Jesse and brother Frank (Sam Shepard, as west as they come), rob their last train. The approaching payload, which appears face first and ready to dive right into the theater, stops dead in its tracks before a masked Jesse, holding up one hand with his spur dug in the tracks. As the James gang comes aboard, Jesse’s conflicted nature appears – when dealing with an obstinate railroad engineer, James is a once-brutal outlaw who can no longer wield a pistol without his emotions impeding him.
Even if melodramatic touches appear during the robbery, “Assassination” is rooted as a drama that develops conflict from conversations and tete-a-tete confrontations. With the appearance of Robert Ford (an impressive Casey Affleck), a lover of dime fiction who weasels his way into the gang to get up front with his infatuation, we realize that this film narrative won’t develop off violence or sensationalism, but that the threat will quietly work his way closer to what will become his target. The languid tone of the “Assassination” still creates tension and, impressively enough, turns quite suspenseful near the end, in spite of the film’s excessive running time.
Ford plays like a late teen who’s still experiencing the awkwardness of puberty. Affleck’s portrayal stays ambiguous in that we are unsure if Ford is just socially inept, or if his issues run deeper. We can tell that his dreams multiplied as he read of James’ exploits in pulp magazines, which drew him toward an antihero and lifestyle to which he is a misfit. While Ford’s attraction to James may seem to move beyond platonic, especially when the former quietly approaches a bathing James, here the bare back already seems like a target.
As awkward as Ford may be, his passion for a dubious life with the James gang comes out when he eventually wields a pistol with necessary abandon. With the help of a consistently off-center performance from Affleck, whose character struggles to enunciate each persuasive word that brings him toward a new life, the film documents a figure so ambitious that his psychological development seems to have lagged behind.
Yet Ford masters a crude eloquence that intrigues James and allows him to get up front with this extremely wanted man. After Ford becomes a well-trusted sideman to James, developments that follow Jesse’s softening and the authorities descent upon him turn Ford from an accomplice into a vehicle for his capture. “The Assassination,” which maintains its dreamy visual tone throughout, creates tension first through an attraction a la “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and soon illustrates an unnerving environment of paranoia. The treat of the film is to witness suspense build without consistent violence (though the film’s few gunshots sound off like a redwood in timber), but through conversations between James and Ford that have a simple text but a menacing, vicious subtext. In a case where the most dangerous are kept dangerously close, here we have a rarity: a suspenseful, yet dramatic Western.