People often ask if the western is making a comeback, but a more pertinent question would be whether it's ever going to cheer up. The likes of Ride the High Country and McCabe and Mrs Miller set a precedent that kept the genre in a state of delirious melancholy for decades; watching these poetic laments for a bygone era can be like attending a wake. Now it's time to dig out the funeral clothes again for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a film so downbeat, cinemas should consider spiking the popcorn with Prozac.
The picture confines itself to the last year of Jesse James's life, when he was in hiding under a pseudonym. Brad Pitt gives a very un-Brad Pitt-like portrayal of the legendary bandit; you would have to go back to his days as an unsavoury character actor in Kalifornia or Twelve Monkeys to find a role more detached from his smug, glossy persona. Pitt captures the rueful disposition of a man watching the light change from his rocking chair and settling scores before his time runs out. He makes Jesse a cautious figure, alert to the smallest betrayal, who moves only if it can't be avoided - such as when he clubs a guard who stands between him and the safe he means to rob.
But when Pitt was named Best Actor for his performance at this year's Venice Film Festival, it was a case of right film, wrong recipient. I don't mean to begrudge him his award. It's just that anyone who sees this picture will agree it belongs to Casey Affleck, who gives a star-making performance as Jesse's eager-beaver sidekick Bob Ford. Nineteen-year-old Bob is 15 years Jesse's junior, and has idolised him throughout his childhood. The force of this worship gives him the confidence to ingratiate himself with the James gang, and even to become Jesse's house guest. Caressing the clothes in his hero's wardrobe, he's like a cowboy version of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca.
What the film, based on Ron Hansen's novel, tries to establish is how Bob went from fawning groupie to the man who put a bullet in Jesse's back. The lion's share of this explanation is borne by Affleck, who brings unimagined shadings to moments of simple joy or surliness. Whenever Bob receives Jesse's approval, Affleck cracks open a toothy smile that suggests sunlight breaking through storm clouds. The entire shape of his face seems to change - in happy times, it looks doughy and shapeless, but as he is forced to lie to his idol, it becomes more angular, the mouth tightening as if on a drawstring. In his most poignant scene, where he divulges to Jesse the depth of his adoration, he tilts his head and drifts into a blissful reverie.
The director, Andrew Dominik, makes awfully heavy weather of this simple story, although he clearly has flair to spare. A nocturnal train ambush ranks as the most spectacular sequence I've seen this year; the James gang, lining the railway tracks and dressed in pillowcase masks with raggedy eyeholes, could be entrants in an Elephant Man lookalike contest. But Dominik too often gilds the pudding and overeggs the lily, piling on mournful music and visual clichés - burnished sunsets, hands trailing through fields of wheat, speeded-up cloud formations.
Like John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, The Assassination of Jesse James is really about how the West was spun. Dominik, who touched on this interplay between celebrity and criminality in his nasty feature film debut, Chopper, frequently observes his characters through warped glass to suggest that their lives were distorted by fame. Some of the most fascinating scenes occur after Jesse's death, when Bob makes another kind of killing by performing in a play about the murder.
The film's verbose voice-over is meant to frame the story as just that - a story, a myth, as divorced from reality as Jesse, who refers to himself in the third person. But that doesn't prevent the device from nearly wrecking the picture. You don't hire actors of this calibre and then use a narrator to tell us how they're feeling. We know how they're feeling. They make us sense it. That's the difference between a film and an audiobook.
Pick of the week
All About Eve (U)
dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Bette Davis at her bitchy best in the 1950 classic. Now on DVD.
Rescue Dawn (12A)
dir: Werner Herzog
True story of the US PoW Dieter Dengler, bluntly told by the great German firebrand.
The Magic Flute (PG)
dir: Kenneth Branagh
Will this new take on Mozart,with a Stephen Fry libretto, equal Bergman’s version?