One of the best this century.
"You want to be like me, or you want to be me?" Jesse James to Robert Ford
The very long arc of Jesse James's mythic persona has yet to descend, and this 2 hour 40 minute version of his demise, lengthily called The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford, seems as slow until you remember that verisimilitude takes time?the small details of a life lived very large, represented in finite time on a finite screen. So I slipped into non-action mode, a singularly un-American posture, and enjoyed the little details of this notorious bandit's life writ large on the screen by a mighty contemporary myth producing and playing the titular role, Brad Pitt.
The air is authenticity, an unhurried excursion through the faces and fates of the low lives the James brothers hired for their last train heist in 1881 in the titles sequence and then the quotidian incidents in James's life with Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) before he kills James. There are small moments to remind of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Days of Heaven, but few to replicate the energy of the recent 3:10 to Yuma.
However, Assassination has its place, like the equally long Dances with Wolves, in creating an authentic atmosphere while still perpetuating the romance of the West that figuratively speaks to our collective desire for individualism, peppered with the exhilaration of Westward movement and the realities of violence and exploitation. (But if that last statement reads pompous to you and you're turning to Long Riders for the twentieth time, then see Assassination just for political assassin James Carville's cameo as a pompous governor.)
When Jesse James berates Ford with the statement, "You want to be like me or you want to be me?" he is commenting on the contemporary cult of celebrity as it plays out in the film. When Frank James (Sam Shepard) advises Ford about his ability to be an outlaw, "You don't have the ingredients, Son," he is implying the hardscrabble life Jesse really had, memorably portrayed in one of the best westerns this century.