Andrew Dominik’s 2007 Western is almost an anti-Western. “The Assassination Of Jesse James” serves to undermine much of what made the genre popular in the 20th century, as well as James himself. The film depicts him not as the heroic, legendary outlaw as he’s often known but as a flawed, violent man out for himself. In the film, Ford (Casey Affleck) tries to ingratiate himself with James (Brad Pitt), before his hero tells him that everything Ford has read about him is a lie. Still, the newly hired gun continues to buy into the myth of his idol as a heroic figure. In that way, he represents the public — enamored with celebrity to the point of fetishization.
Dominik, who recently caused controversy with his Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde,” was concerned with the clash between reality and belief, dramatizing that clash not just through the film’s depiction of James but of the landscape in which he exists. This isn’t the land of cowboys vs native Americans, where rugged frontier heroes triumph over their enemies and establish their dominance. The landscapes in “Jesse James” are often barren, desolate, yawning plains, adding to the haunting atmosphere of Dominik’s film and equating to what almost seems like a two-and-a-half-hour long lament for the death of the Western and the cultural myths on which it was based.
And if you’re a major Hollywood studio, you’re not really in the market for something that undermines the very idea of celebrity — a concept key to selling movies. And if an action-packed Western is what you thought you were paying for, you’re also probably not too keen on getting something that subverts the typical action and excitement of a Western.