(out of 5)
The best way to perk up the sagging spirits of Americans embroiled in a flailing war and waning economy: take a look back at one of the most potent myths to ever make the USA’s tough and noble self-image what it is today. What a relief to discover that the film isn’t actually a promotion of that myth, or even an examination of the story behind it, but a thought-provoking and emotionally exhilarating revelation of the empty reality of myths themselves. Brad Pitt, a near-legendary press figure in his own right, plays the famed outlaw who, along with his brother Frank (Sam Shepard), killed countless human beings in his highly publicized robberies that ended up becoming the subject of fictionalized magazine serials. Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) is one of the many young men who has grown up idolizing James, eventually hitching himself to the criminals’ wagon train of merry men in the hopes of becoming a famed gunslinger. Stars are born, however, not made, and the different paths that these two men are on end up setting them against each other rather than hooking them up as partners. Ford ages quickly in a short period of time and realizes that his boyhood dreams are merely the feverish ravings of a country looking to sanctify a madman: James is no Robin Hood, he’s merely a violent sociopath whose charisma has gotten him far with the people he hasn’t killed, but whose battle scars have begun to add up and turn him irrational while amplifying his unholy mean streak. Director Andrew Dominik includes enough lovely images to prove that he’s seen Days Of Heaven a few too many times, even roping in Malick’s cast member Shepard and production and costume designer Patricia Norris (whose exquisitely detailed work really stands out here), but there’s no denying that he has made a strong work of art. This film tells us that a nation’s need to prove itself moral and strong has warped the tale of a tired man begging to end the madness he’s trapped in and has turned it into a false tragedy about a misunderstood hero killed before his time (the man who shot and killed Ford was later acquitted and pardoned by the president, proving that the insane celebrity obsession we are currently so critical of is nothing new); as the saying goes, the reason why it’s called the American Dream is because it happens while you’re asleep. Pitt should be commended for giving a performance that is not only full of iconic bravura, but also fearlessly eschews any attempt to soften the character and make him likeable, while Affleck is gracefully strong from beginning to end. An amazing film that you won’t soon forget.
Directed by Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by Andrew Dominik, based on the novel by Ron Hansen
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Costume Design by Patricia Norris