By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated September 19, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — a haunting retelling of one of the enduring outlaw sagas in American culture — is shot by the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins in a wide-open geography of moody skies and fields plaintive with bent light and shadow. Yet the psychological heart of the matter is dark, secretive, and daringly interior. This masterful Western by New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik (Chopper), based on the 1983 book by Ron Hansen, dips into the genre-bending influences of wild-card Westerns from the late ’60s and ’70s like Bonnie and Clyde and Days of Heaven for its elegiacally fatalistic tone. Yet the picture emerges with something very much plaguing the 21st century on its mind — a cool acceptance of lethal paranoia as the natural state brought on by the weight of too much legend building and the warp of too much unrequited fandom. The charismatic, bank-robbing, gunslinging James, after all, was shot in the back by a puny would-be tagalong who claimed to be the gang leader’s biggest fan, and this is one rueful recounting of how it all went down. Stories about the loneliness of celebrity and the dangers of firearms rarely get starker or more mesmerizing than that.

Brad Pitt plays James with a tired-eyed, authoritative understanding of fame’s traps (he won the acting prize at the Venice Film Festival for his work), and a revelatory Casey Affleck brings Ford to life with a mature sense of an underling’s craven, fawning petulance. But so true to its own lights is Dominik’s artful creation that all the actors (the sterling cast includes a fine Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother, Sam Shepard as Jesse’s older brother, and Mary-Louise Parker as Jesse’s wife) fit effortlessly into the larger narrative landscape, none too big for their britches. The nervy style of this newfangled Western, with its eerie, insinuating score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is so effective that long after Pitt and Affleck have left the screen, emotional disturbance lingers like gun smoke. A