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'The Assassination of Jesse James ... '

An oft-told Wild West saga acquires the majesty of Greek tragedy in this exquisitely filmed character study — the full title of which is the wordy but revealing The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

The James brothers, Jesse (Brad Pitt) and Frank (Sam Shepard) are preparing for their last train robbery when skittish, weaselly 19-year-old Bob Ford (Casey Affleck) asks to join their gang.

Frank senses something not quite right, but he's about to ride off into retirement; Jesse, amused by the hero-worship Bob can't hide (the kid has read every nickel novel about the gang and knows the lore backwards), lets the outlaw pup tag along.

Being a member of the James Gang at this point, let's note, is no picnic. Jesse, a calculating charmer with an easy grin and a steely gaze, senses the law closing in — and deals more and more ruthlessly with betrayal. Bob, constantly humiliated and bullied, is soon as paranoid as his idol, and ... well, the title says it all, no?

Except that there's still a good 40 minutes of story after the title-coward shoots the title-outlaw in the back; it's a wrap-up about the price of infamy that's every bit as intriguing as the gun-slinging that's gone before.

Writer-director Andrew Dominik takes his time (160 minutes of it) with the story, but his languorous pacing allows tension to build — and permits the actors, Affleck in particular, to add nuance and depth to characters who'll seem familiar only at first glance. That they're doing all this against landscapes that could hardly be more magnificent doesn't hurt, of course. (Recommended)

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.