It's hard to imagine this film being much of a success, despite starring Brad Pitt. It's a long-haul: slow-moving, intensely melancholic and sombre, dealing in grey-paletted landscapes and skyscapes, pauses, silences, things unsaid as much as things said. Still, it's been critically successful, and it address questions pertinent to today's society. Fame. Hero worship. The desire to be someone else, as an escape from the drudgery of your own life ("do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"). The realisation that that someone else is "just a man," just like you, and that he perhaps struggles with the same sense of drudgery and hopelessness, as you do.
Notably, the film conveys a sense of the drudgery and sheer hardship of life in the west that many films miss, and, unlike most other westerns (with the exception of 'True Grit'), the dialogue often feels authentic slightly grandiose, perhaps stilted to our ears almost Elizabethan; slow, deliberate, unusual, and just right.
Roger Ebert comments on the bleak emptiness of the landscape (like McCabe and Mrs Miller, it was shot in Canada- all huge grey skies, desolate waving wheat-fields, snow, ice, and mud), and how, because of this, because "the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends." As in the Russian drama 'The Return', the landscape becomes almost a character, or at least a driving force which partially dictates why the characters behave how they do and what courses of action they take.
I say this partly because no explanation is sought, or offered, by anyone in the film, for the gang's actions. This is simply what they do - perhaps to avoid the drudgery of working in a grocery store, like Bob, or making shoes, as Frank suggests he will do; perhaps for the money, to give themselves a chance of a fuller life. Perhaps simply because, in this environment, doing anything feels almost like a random act. The film is detached from the characters, and the characters are detached from themselves. At one point, Jesse speaks about watching himself from outside: "I look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong." The state governor comments that, while some say Jesse's crimes are revenge on Republicans and people who wronged his family, his victims didn't seem to be chosen on account of their political persuasion. In other words, he's no political rebel. He's just an outlaw, who does what he does - who knows why? That's not important to the governor. He wants the man captured, not to understand his motivation. The film should go beyond his concerns though, and examine the latter..shouldn't't it? Doesn't it?
I'm not convinced that it does, and more context of the sort hinted at in the governor's two or three lines might have helped. For all the film's desire for historical accuracy in detail, in the bigger picture it's rather sketchy. I'll return to these criticisms later.
But, still, it's a film easy to admire, for several reasons: the use of space, and silence, building tension in long, drawn-out dinner-table conversations. The inexorable build toward death, like Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West', a dance of death - or a slow, deliberately paced walk towards it. It feels like something winding down: everyone is aware of impending confrontation, but unable to escape from it. People face their deaths with stoicism, as if this is what fate has dictated for them, as if it is their role to play: the gang member Pitt shoots in the back for real, or imagined betrayal; James himself, who glimpses his assassin in a mirror but makes no attempt to dodge the bullet's path.
It will probably be admired most for its performances: Casey Affleck's insinuating, awkward hero-worshipper, at once understandable and pitiable - bullied, insecure, unloved - and at once somewhat contemptible, annoying and disturbing. Pitt's James - aloof, detached: melancholy, for no clear reason, at one point he hints at his desire for death, for suicide. "Once you've looked over the other side, you'll never want to go back into your body," he says. Or something of the sort. Then shoots holes into the ice.
Ultimately however, despite this admiration, it's hard to like, much less love. It is characterised by the same aloofness I've just discussed in its protagonist. Jesse's occasional mentions of the soul raise the possibility of a deeper philosophical strain (which might be somewhat out of place, given the dour 'factual', 'realistic' nature of the film, such as the vomit that smears Bob Ford's suit when he falls over on a saloon floor)- but it remains merely a suggestion, adding to a vague impression of some sort of inexplicable sadness. Of course, James is not simple: a psychotic family man. But there's a lack of insight into his character, and the other characters in the film. They seem to remain ciphers who simply exist, rather than fully fledged human beings who act. James' family seems barely to exist, except for occasional shots to show that he has one. The film observes dislikeable characters doing dislikable things; the audience is left to judge, but are not given that much to base their judgements on, despite the slow pace. The film's attitude to its legendary titular character is unclear: do we admire him? He's a cold-blooded murderer - surely just as much of a coward as Bob Ford. Or is he let off the hook because he's Brad Pitt, because he's brooding and handsome and has a family? Ultimately, the film is indifferent - neither tragic nor exciting, just generally glum, it gives the impression of saying more than it actually does. It had the potential to be more than it is, and is thus an interesting, perhaps necessary, but flawed movie.