The Contenders

Release date: Sept. 21 Distributor: Warner Bros.

Anyone who believes the title says it all hasn’t seen writer-director Andrew Dominik’s visionary treatment of Jesse James’ last days, as imagined in the Ron Hansen novel of the same name. Sure enough, Robert Ford does kill the notorious outlaw, but Dominik seems equally interested in the culture of pre-cinema idol worship, when impressionable Americans turned to such larger-than-life personalities for their celebrity fix (it’s no coincidence that 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery” reveled in a Jesse James-style stickup, nor that Dominik’s last shot tips its hat to that early silent).

For the part of Jesse, Dominik needed a movie star of comparable magnitude, someone who could convey not only the outlaw’s pretty-boy appeal but also the tempestuous outbursts that made him so dangerous. In Brad Pitt, he finds an actor up to the challenge with the backstory to boot. But the real revelation is Pitt’s “Ocean’s” trilogy co-star Casey Affleck, who plays the awestruck assassin — a shy, insecure youth so smitten with the outlaw that he joined his gang, later turning Judas on his hero in a bid of jealous egotism.

Warners will tout Affleck in the supporting category and Pitt for lead, which could work out nicely for the younger actor. After 20 years of smaller roles, Affleck seems to have come into his own this year. Just as noteworthy as Dominik’s direction (and immune to complaints against the pic’s 160-minute running time) is d.p. Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography, which sees the Old West through fresh eyes.

See photos, trailer and more on ‘The Assassination of Jesse James’

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