The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a masterpiece. Film buffs would call it a ‘slow burn’. That is to say you will need to sit right through to the end for the intensity of every shot, every line of dialogue, every matter of subtext and symbolism to be done with and to imprint itself on your consciousness. That is not to say you will be bored. Repeated viewings, if you paid any attention the first go around, may not yield too much more insight in the plot or motivations but will afford you time to better study the players on screen, and to marvel in the spectacle of this achievement.
Many shots feature an out of focus effect with a small portion in the center much sharper. It emulates an old time photo. Many silhouettes come into play, shadows and moody lighting create what is best described as a symphony of sights, from Jesse James’ face lit only on one side, to the glow that surrounds him and Ed Morris in the night, as they pass under the stars for one last stroll together. The lanterns only light a small proximity, and the outlines of the men who carry them with bandanas over their faces are carved into the night and against the woods or the iron of the train. Every shot, if paused, is worthy of painting, capturing every facet of life in 1881 in perfect detail, no thread out of place or brow furled wrongly.
That brings us to the acting, which is superb. Casey Affleck puts on one the most disturbing, powerful and provoking roles in cinema. I do not know who he was channeling, be it an earlier rendition of Robert Ford or maybe his very own interpretation but it is hypnotizing and appalling all the same. Such a strange, small man carries so much weight in the rugged tundra and between the tall trees of Missouri, laid up against his contemporaries he is a breed all his own. From the words he speaks to his expressions and mannerism, they exist only here, a microcosm of genius glowing in a thoughtful recreation of America’s freedom age.
But that’s not to say his foil and all his stage-mates were not performing in their own right. Brad Pitt puts on his own Tour-De-Force as the mysterious, dangerous and frightening Jesse James. Spontaneous, unpredictable, equally as peculiar as Robert Ford and awfully alluring, the well-built man dresses sharp and carries words just as sharp. His mind always on the viewer’s mind, no thought goes unpondered in this troubled man’s head as any audience of this movie can attest. His face speaks volumes of what is never said, from his life-weariness and depression to madness and paranoia, Jesse James is a mess and a dangerous one.
Sam Rockwell’s charm and amicable attitude are put to good work here, playing the ignorant friend to Casey Affleck’s misguided hero and Jesse James’ world weary outlaw. So much characterization comes from even the most mundane tasks and conversations, and of course in the grotesque ones, like Jesse killing the snakes, or Robert saying hello to Jesse’s family.
The movie takes us through the life and times of one of the most well remembered outlaws in America and in the world, slandering the thoughts his name might evoke and bringing him to an all too cruel and uniquely human level. Robert Ford experiences the disappointment of a lifetime in meeting his hero, betraying him, and being made to think by the world, fooled themselves, that he was the bad guy by the very end. The narration punctuates emotions that are already tense and close to tearing with it’s all too convenient timing and frank description.
The editing has a very nice rhythm with long sustained shots keeping us mesmerized and looking for every speck of detail. Most notable is the end when the editing speeds up and features freeze frames as if to capture as a record the events that unfold in Robert’s twilight days.
In the end we never really knew Jesse James; even the Jesse seen here may very well not be real. In the beginning he is described as blinking more often than the common man due to a health condition, and yet his gazes lost in thought harbor very few blinks. What we do know is that we live in a misguided world, where villains rise to the top as heroes, and heroes sink to the bottom as villains. Robert Fords tale is the most important one here, seeing a young man with aspirations torn down and squirming under the weight of a million voices, it is a sight to behold.