Like the gorgeous, contemplative films of Terrence Malick, writer-director Andrew Dominik's 2007 drama The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford both embraces its genre and wanders along its own path to its own rhythm. Featuring Brad Pitt's revelatory turn as the infamous bank robber Jesse James, The Assassination screens as part of the UCLA Film & Television Archive's retrospective of iconic films about James and fellow outlaw Billy the Kid. An atmospheric examination of our obsession with scandals and scoundrels, the film (based on Ron Hansen's 1983 novel) traces the doomed platonic relationship between James and his admiring cohort Ford (Casey Affleck), an ineffectual member of his gang, who lusts after James but will eventually shoot him in the back of the head. And even though the film's ending is preordained by its title, the journey to that resolution is mysterious and ethereal -- just as the film's denouement contains its own unexpected rewards. The Assassination's melancholic tone and overpowering visuals make this a must-see on the big screen, to say nothing of the strong supporting performances from Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider. While Affleck received much of the attention at the time of the film's release, it's Pitt who really transfixes. In keeping with a western that's more about quiet beauty and tragic inevitability than explosive action, Pitt gives us a Jesse James who's entirely fearsome, impossibly gorgeous and teasingly opaque. For us to believe Ford's obsessive infatuation with James, we need to fall in love with him ourselves, and Pitt's measured performance is one of the finest of his underrated career.
Sun., Jan. 31, 7 p.m., 2010