It is rare that a film gives away the ending in the title; it is even rarer that it can then keep you engrossed all the way through to its dénouement.
Andrew Dominik's is the latest in a long line of films about America's most famous outlaw. It traces the relationship between James (Pitt) and his admirer and assassin Ford (Affleck) in the final months of the outlaw's life.
Historians are undecided if Ford killed James out of jealousy, for fame or to take his place. In the end, their relationship here is a speculation and according to Dominik, who also directed 'Chopper', is "meant more to stir the imagination than impose a point of view".
James was a celebrity in his own lifetime with the media doing much to create a hero or rebel out of a criminal and murderer. Much of what they reported was false but it served to create the myth of the anti-hero or Robin Hood figure when the truth was far from that.
Ford followed Jesse's 'career' as an adolescent by collecting newspaper cuttings and cheap magazines that recounted the acts of the James Gang, which was led by Jesse and his brother Frank (Shepherd). Ford gets the chance to meet and work with the James Gang at their final heist at Blue Cut in 1881 through his gang-member brother Charley (Rockwell).
As the increasing price on James' head is worth more than a heist, members of Jesse's gang are left with the decision to follow him or take him out for the reward money and fame that would follow. This leads Jesse to suspect that members of his gang are plotting against him and stokes the idea that he needs to get shut of those he cannot trust.
Pitt's portrayal of James and his increasing paranoia is arguably the best performance of his career and he finally delivers a performance worthy of the role. However, he is outshone by his fellow lead, as Affleck's nervous, whiny and cowardly Ford is exceptional and sure to put him in Oscar contention.
If there is a downside to this film, it is its length. Perhaps, at 160 minutes it is a touch too long. The end does not come when you expect it to and some of the scenes could have been shorter.
Yet the sound and look of the picture make up for that downfall. Roger Deakins' cinematography is dark, moody and stunning; from the wide-angle landscape shots to the dark close-ups and the classic framing of silhouettes in doorways.
Modern-day Canadian ranches and wide-open plains double as Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Colorado in the winter of 1882. And he seems to have borrowed the rushing clouds and cornfields blowing in the wind from producer Ridley Scott.
The haunting musical score from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis and the use of an omnipotent narrator (Hugh Roth) complement the cinematography.
The film's release was delayed by over a year as Dominik and the producers quibbled over the final cut, but 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' is certainly worth the wait.
If you have the patience to sit through a film that is over two-and-a-half hours long then you are in for a treat.