The first question you are likely to ask after watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is why Javier Bardem beat out Casey Affleck for Best Supporting Actor. Not to take anything away from Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men, but, well, come on! Bardem was asked to be menacing, which he did wonderfully, but that is all he was asked. Affleck shows more insight into Bob Ford in just one scene than Bardem did to Anton Chigurh in that entire movie. The second question you will ask is how this movie managed to slip under the radar and receive only nominations for Affleck and for its camerawork. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was one of the five best movies of the 2000’s easy. Maybe even in the top three. It is definitely the best western of the past two decades.
At a certain point in this grandly majestic yet extraordinarily intimate epic you will be reminded of John Lennon. Or, to be more precise, you will be reminded of the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Lennon: Mark David Chapman. Make no mistake, this film is not intended to be yet another in the long line of mostly fictional biopics of the legendary badman of the wild, wild Midwest. What The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford seeks to capture is something related less to the 19th century than to the 20th century; it is a portrait of fandom and the cult of celebrity. As played by Brad Pitt in his best performance since Fight Club, Jesse James is not so much a bloodthirsty, Yankee-hating rebel bank robber as he is a star. Bob Ford has grown up reading the dime novel fictionalizations of Jesse’s legend and one can see in him in such sad 20th twentieth godchildren as Chapman and John Hinckley. Bob Ford is a man, a boy really, who wants to carve out of the unrelenting Midwestern landscape in which he lives a little bit of immortality. Having no inherent talent, he latches onto Jesse James by a stroke of fortune and good luck. It is frankly impossible to imagine any other actor inhabiting this role more fully than Casey Affleck. While I have never been impressed with his brother Ben, except for his skillful direction in that other 2007 movie in which Casey impresses, Gone Baby Gone, if he manages to do nothing else, Casey Affleck will stick in my mind for this movie. Affleck’s voice somehow manages to range from petulant to defiant to arrogant to whiny all within a single sentence. The one thing Affleck never allows Bob Ford to do is devolve into a psychotic. And that is what makes him so much more frightening than Anton Chigurh.
Affleck’s Bob Ford is the Rupert Pupkin of the 21st century; obsessed with fame and celebrity. He is representative of all those pathetic individuals who not only never achieve fame, but only infamy, he is also, especially toward the end, like a contestant on a reality show. Lacking a talent or any identity of his own, his only means toward grasping the golden ring that life in these United States has determined to be the only thing really worth living for—achieving a lifestyle of the rich and famous—is to attain fame through the murder of a celebrity. Just like Mark David Chapman in his diseased mind somehow believed that by killing the real John Lennon he himself would become John Lennon, so does the dirty little coward Robert Ford come to understand that his only way out of a life of listless desperation is to attempt the same kind of doppelganging experience. A bullet to the back of the head in a plain wooden house at the top of a hill is all it takes to eventually put Bob Ford on the stages of New York. The haunting narration that fills in the gaps of this film tells us that following the assassination, more people could recognize Bob Ford than the President of the United States. Well, not too long ago, more people could recognize Scott Peterson than the President of the United States, so I’m inclined to believe the narrator. Yes, Bob Ford winds up on the stage, achieving more fame than even Jesse James and he very nearly pulled off what he wanted. Unfortunately for Robert Ford, when Jesse James chose a name to live under for the purpose of anonymity, he chose one that rhymes with coward. Of such seemingly inconsequential things are legacies gained and destroyed.
Brad Pitt hits just the right notes as Jesse James. It almost certainly helps that he has been a superstar most of his life; the creeping paranoia of someone whose life is no longer quite his own is palpable. In addition to the subtly wrought performance of Pitt and the absolutely extraordinary performance of Affleck, literally everyone else in this movie is pitch perfect. The always dependable Sam Rockwell adds yet another fascinating portrait to his increasing right to call himself one of the most versatile actors in film today. Other standouts include Paul Schneider, Garret Dillahunt and Jeremy Renner as tangential members of the James Gang. The Oscar-nominated cinematography is almost as impressive as the film it lost to, There Will be Blood. The score of this film is beautifully subtle and those of you who grew up listening to 1980s college radio will be thrilled to recognize the name of the man responsible: the inimitable Nick Cave. (Though without the Bad Seeds.)