THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD — *** — Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck; rated R (violence, profanity, vulgarity)

Can an actor be too good for a movie? Based on Casey Affleck's work in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the answer is yes.

It's 1881, late in the game for the infamous James gang. Their ranks have been diminished by the constant pursuit of the authorities. Frank (Sam Shepard) and his younger brother Jesse (Brad Pitt) have taken to contracting out dirty work for a train robbery.

The story begins with the old gang and newcomers getting to know each other in the woods. Nineteen-year-old Robert Ford (Affleck), better known as Bob, is already in, but he's still acting like an eager job applicant, angling for a better position.

Bob sidles up to Frank, tries to endear himself to the old pro through a toxic mix of sycophantic chatter and boastfulness, fails miserably, pretends otherwise with Jesse, is caught in the lie and still doesn't slink away. So the title tells us Bob is a coward — and that he killed Jesse James — while Affleck tells us, with great economy of movement and speech, in the first few minutes of the film, that he's also a cunning little creep with delusions of grandeur.

Not only do we want the charismatic Jesse to run, we'd like to follow. But writer/director Andrew Dominik, who based his screenplay on Ron Hansen's novel of the same, unwieldy name, is in no rush to bring their relationship to its obvious climax. What follows is an agonizing, two-hour pas de deux between Jesse and Bob, shot in a highly stylized, evocative manner that includes fish-eye lenses, sepia tints and many lonely wintry landscapes.

With the exception of a coda to the Bob Ford saga, the film moves at a leisurely pace. Given the lack of dramatic tension, it's too long, even though, undeniably, Dominik's intentions are noble. He wants to explore more than just Bob's motivations; he wants us to understand how a feral cat like Jesse would ever let his guard down. The origins and discomforts of Jesse's celebrity are as essential to the story as Bob's longing to achieve his own fame.

Pitt has, of course, the sexier part. But he's also got the better written, more engaging one. Bob has the one-dimensionality of callow youth (me, me and more me!) while Pitt's Jesse unfolds in multiple directions before our eyes. We don't know exactly how he's going to be in any given scene — beyond cool, that is — and so we don't tire of him.

Nor is Jesse easy to understand: At one point, he kills someone too dopey to be a real threat, maybe just because the hunted needed, at that moment, to feel like a hunter and taste blood. Then, after a later scene in which his brutality is truly out of control, he weeps. It could be in regret, or in frustration with his own situation.

We're not sure because Pitt keeps his cards close enough to his chest to maintain the allure of the legend while making suggestions about what lies behind it. That ambiguity is alluring. Pitt may be an insanely glamorous movie star but his Jesse James is the work of an assured, mature actor.

Comment on this story

There have been so many tellings of the James gang legend, from the 1939 Tyrone Power-Henry Fonda version to Walter Hill's "The Long Riders," that yet another may seem unnecessary, especially one as imperfect as this. But "Assassination" offers enough in the way of performance (Sam Rockwell and Paul Schneider are particularly good in supporting roles) and mood to earn itself a place in the ranks of Jesse James stories.

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" is rated R for some strong violence and brief sexual references. Running time: 160 minutes.