This film spans (approximately) the year just before Jesse James's death and the year just after. We first meet up with the James gang as they're about to pull off their last train robbery in Missouri. It's a new gang though: Frank (Sam Shepard) and Jesse James (Brad Pitt) are there, but all the other guys are new, including a cousin of theirs (Jeremy Renner), some petty thieves (Paul Schneider) and a few local knuckleheads (Garret Dillahunt - channeling his Jack McCall character from Deadwood).
Included among the knuckleheads are two Ford brothers, Charlie (Sam Rockwell) and Robert (Casey Affleck). Bob Ford has followed Jesse's career of mayhem since he was a boy and is overwhelmed by his nearness to the man. By turns fawning and obsequious, then sullen and angry when his attentions are laughed at, Ford continues to worm himself into the outlaw's life. As the government starts to close in on Jesse, James becomes paranoid, turning on the men in his gang. At the film's climax, when Ford shoots Jesse in the bandit's own living room, the torment on Ford's face is clear: is he killing his idol before James kills him, or is he doing it to grab a place in the spotlight for himself.
Both Pitt and Affleck are outstanding in this film. Affleck was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the pathetic, cringing, lickspittle (but dead shot) Ford. Pitt is extremely convincing as the charismatic James in what may one of his best acting jobs to date. Supporting players are uniformly strong as well, although Mary Louise Parker was wasted in her miniscule role as Jesse's wife.
The problem with this movie is pacing. As in its lack thereof. Long stretches of time go by when nothing happens, and then longer stretches when the supporting characters do nothing but mutter at each other. Because Affleck and Pitt's characters are so compelling, they are sorely missed when they are not on-screen and, frankly, there's too much time without them.
If you've got plenty of time, are well-caffeinated and are a fan of the lore of the American West, then by all means indulge in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. If any of those ingredients are missing, however ... well, you've been warned.
* It's also got one of the most cumbersome movie titles ever. I mean, really. I know it's the title of the book but jeesh.