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'Jesse' turns an outlaw into high art

Brad Pitt (left, as the outlaw) and Casey Affleck star in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.' Brad Pitt (left, as the outlaw) and Casey Affleck star in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." (Kimberly French/Warner Brothers Pictures)

As you might expect from something called "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," brevity is not a virtue here. The movie dreamily conjures up the outlaw's last months, and it's gorgeous, but long, cumbersome, and slightly shallow. In its next life it deserves to come back as one of those Taschen art books that never leaves the coffee table: heavy art.

The writer and director Andrew Dominik aims to use the Jesse James myth, circa 1881 and 1882 Missouri, to contemplate modern mythmaking. And if you're up for doing some serious intellectual squinting, you might even see an allegory for meta-celebrity worship, since Brad Pitt plays James and a variety-pack of somewhat younger, less globally famous actors - Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, and Garret Dillahunt - play the adoring dudes in his posse. The early narrative event involves James's final train robbery. The ensuing drama is over whether the bounty for his capture or murder is too lucrative and too star-making to keep his apostles loyal.

Getting to the assassination of the title requires a stupendously excessive drift from point A to point B, during which Dominik demonstrates all he learned on his stint a few years ago as a second-unit director for "The New World," Terrence Malick's retelling of the John Smith-Pocahontas relationship. Malick displaced the story of the civilized world onto that love affair, and the movie was a wonder, a perfect balance of moral sadness and aesthetic exploration. Ponderousness hung over the movie, just as it did in Malick's ecology's-eye-view of World War II, "The Thin Red Line." Dominik doesn't quite have Malick's control of the weather. His movie is mostly ponderous, despite the unceasingly beautiful imagery (the great Roger Deakins did the cinematography; Curtiss Clayton and Dylan Tichenor edited the film).

FAMOUS WESTERNS See a photo gallery of other Western film classics at boston.com/films.

Or maybe it's ponderous because of the imagery: The style doesn't add up to anything bigger. The approach of a train's headlights in a pitch-black forest is like dawn by Thomas Edison. There are shots of empty chairs, swaying treetops, agitated skies. The film has a narrator, Hugh Ross, and his intonations are married to composed images whose edges blur but whose centers are sharply focused. It's like watching something through thick glass. "The Assassination of Jesse James" has an accompanying thickly sullen atmosphere - the joshing, antics, and banter among the James boys, their priapic names (Dick Liddil, Wood Hite), bring some levity. (Mary Louise Parker, Alison Elliott, and Zooey Deschanel are on hand as half-hearted proof that women existed.) The sequences among the men come off so easily, in fact, that you wonder why Dominik bothered to construct a movie with such a poker face or devoted this much seriousness to iconography that isn't that compelling. This could be Jesse James playing Brad Pitt in "Ocean's Whatever." It could be Jesse James as Jesus Christ, surrounded by a band of acolytes and turncoats.

Pitt's characterization is interesting insofar as he doesn't appear to be playing a character. He broods, grins, and looks fetching in all of Patricia Norris's period costumes. If the movie doubles as a portrait of the actor, Dominik picks up on why Pitt is a movie star: He makes not acting look easy. But as a subject for allegory Pitt is too opaque to reward scrutiny, even if some of the narration, adapted from Ron Hansen's impressionistic novel, seems dead-on. ("Rooms were hotter when he walked into them," goes one line.) The narration actually contributes a florid but forensic accounting. We learn a lot about what James did without lifting the veil on who he was.

If the movie truly is about the lust for fame, only the last 30 or so minutes, after Robert Ford pulls the trigger, bring out the best in Dominik's idea. Casey Affleck plays Ford, and his presence in the picture turns less peripheral as the film unfolds. There is time to study the uncanny smoothness of his face and the adolescent awkwardness in his manner, so that when the moment comes for Affleck to take the literal stage as a legend-killer (Ford cast himself and his brother Charlie, whom Sam Rockwell plays, in theatrical reenactments of the murder), he's mesmerizing, since his charisma seemed like a closely kept secret.

The metaphor of Affleck slaying Pitt is pure Hollywood, but it's compelling since in this movie Affleck appears to want us to know he's not content to play Robin to everyone else's Batman. And the movie turns into what it should have been all along: a dual character study of Bob and Charlie. You're not entirely sure why the film doesn't work until, suddenly, it does. The last act is sinister, surreal, sad, and sharply acted. It also uses all the formal flourishes to advance a more hot-blooded story of a surprisingly cold-blooded man. Dominik should have just borrowed the title and length of Sam Fuller's 81-minute first movie and called his film "I Shot Jesse James," then told it in reverse. Otherwise, the movie is a pumpkin that takes too long to get carved into a jack-o'-lantern.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Written and directed by: Andrew Dominik, adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt, and Sam Shepard

At: Boston Common, Boston, Kendall Square, Cambridge, and suburbs

Running time: 157 minutes

Rated: R (Crude and sexual humor and language)

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