Oscar Ritual 2008 : THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Casey Affleck) and Cinematography
Before renting The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I knew little of the film other than its two stars and the title. That turned out to be a very good thing; my opinion might have been tainted had the filmed been described by anyone else in my life. And it’s the kind of film that must be experienced with no preconceived notions in order that it doesn’t lose its impact.
Obviously, the story is right there in the title so few surprises can be had, yet I found myself drawn deeper and deeper by way of the two main characters of Jesse James and Robert Ford. The story is, in fact, the story of Robert Ford, though the nomination of Casey Affleck in a supporting role might make you think otherwise. Affleck is the center of the film; 95% of the movie lies in his character. But to understand Robert Ford and his motivation for the murder, you need to spend time with Jesse James, and Brad Pitt developed the character of James with some of his best and most subtle acting since his earliest days in the movie business. For a good thirty minutes at the beginning of the film, Pitt says hardly a word and is little more than a stoic figure, lending a visual to the grand legend that became of the man. I kept thinking, during these first minutes, that Pitt wasn’t really acting at all and was, instead, simply emoting from time to time. That he did this caused me to be pleasantly surprised by the transformation of James throughout the remainder of the film. By the end, Pitt showed a depth and persona that was equally despicable and intriguing. I, like so many before me, had maintained a romantic notion about Jesse James, but this portrayal has squashed that image completely. James was an outlaw who began his criminal acts for good reasons but eventually succumbed to his own legend, paranoia and complete disregard for life finally taking him under.
The characterization of Robert Ford follows in much the same way. Ford idolized James, imagining himself a mirror image of the man, perhaps even equal. He wanted nothing more than to be part of the James Gang. Yet he was diminished by everyone in his life, and this colored his every movement. Try as he might, Ford just didn’t have the stature to be taken seriously. And fear always dictated his actions. In the end, he used this fear to justify the killing of his idol. Interestingly, it is the time following that single act that shed blinding light on Ford. Casey Affleck is exquisite in his performance, drawing you into the psyche of Ford, making you understand and even empathize with his choices. And yet, by the end of the film I found him as despicable as James, though for entirely different reasons.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost a spellbinding film. The cinematography is as much as part of the film as the actors themselves, and every single performance deserves praise. Though the pacing often moves slowly, the film is never boring. I question only one thing — voiceover narration that is present throughout the entire film. This narration often gives the movie a documentary feel, which often made me keenly aware of its lack of action and, at times, dialogue. This movie is less a western than it is a historical reenactment, but somehow this seems to give it more weight, and that may be what kept me so interested. It is a character study done so well that it’s easy to forget you are watching a movie.
image from Rotten Tomatoes