The much-anticipated revisionist western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, as evidenced by its chewily purple title, has a lot on its plate—too much, possibly. The result is a film with sustained passages of eerie, Malickian beauty (an early sequence involving a train robbery feels like one of the reasons that film was invented), mixed with increasing stretches of self-conscious artiness. Whether you should see it or not may ultimately depend on your tolerance for shots of windswept wheat and time-lapse clouds. Still, when it works, it works absolutely.
Adapted from Ron Hansen's novel, director Andrew Dominik's (Chopper) script tells the tale of the declining, increasingly paranoid folk hero Jesse James (a very good Brad Pitt) and his volatile relationship with fawning hanger-on Robert Ford (Casey Affleck, sporting a creepy ventriloquist-dummy stare), culminating in the rather large spoiler of a title. Throughout, Dominik spends too much time dealing with the secondary members of James' gang (despite some fine performances by the likes of Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider) and not enough exploring what makes the title characters kick. Nearly three hours later, James and Ford remain gorgeous, frightening ciphers. (Matters are not helped much by a broad voiceover of the "tell, don't show" variety.)
So is this a recommendation or not? I'm not sure, exactly. Hours after viewing, all I can say for certain is that the movie's combination of tedium and genuinely exquisite moments evokes the sort of frustration that can only be generated by a talented filmmaker who shoots ambitiously for the moon, and can't quite make it. It casts a spell, but only intermittently.