Though atmosphere-heavy and plot-light, and obviously pushing Brad Pitt for a “he’s doing serious art here” Academy Award, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford turns out to be a mesmerizing look at the final months of a gun-toting desperado. Pitt plays Jesse James, the former Confederate soldier who gained fame for his murders and bank robberies, most of them pulled off with cold-blooded panache with his older brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), and the Cole Younger clan.

The film begins with the Youngers either dead or imprisoned and Frank on his way out the door. It is 1881, and Jesse, at 34, is a shadow of his former self. He staggers from hideout to hideout, his life a toxic mix of anger, frustration, fatigue and fear. He has been immortalized in newspapers and dime novels, but the end is near. The only question is how he will orchestrate his exit.


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