Casey Affleck (who plays The Coward Robert Ford) is the real star of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, despite Brad Pitt being all over the marketing material. Pitt’s prominence is understandable from a marketing perspective, but it’s also thematically resonant, and adds an important meta-layer to the story, believe it or not. Robert Ford’s second-fiddle status is baked into his nature, and is the reason that James chose him to be his killer.
Oh. Wait. Spoiler alert.
Oh. Wait. It’s right there in the title. Never mind.
During his own lifetime, the vicious murderer Jesse James was marketed and packaged as a boy’s adventure hero by New York “dime novel” publishers — none of whom had his permission or participation, as far as anybody knows. It is because of these early pulps that Jesse James and his gang entered the pantheon of American folklore. We know the James Gang because of those fictions, even though we don’t know the fictions anymore. Here’s the text of one of them. Laughable stuff.
It’s entirely possible that this movie, which strikes me as being as authentic and historically believable as anything I’ve ever seen, could be just as artificial and crazily wrong — keyed to the particular preoccupations of a cynical and exhausted 21st century middle-aged man, rather than those of a naive 19th century boy. I don’t care. I still believe it, as thoroughly as Robert Ford managed to continue to believe the pulp fictions he’d grown up reading, despite knowing the real man and learning the truth about him first-hand.
That the film manages to be a suspenseful despite its title is a testament to the performances, especially Pitt’s and Affleck’s. Jesse James is a charismatic, loveable, ruthless guy whose presence in the room puts everybody he’s joshing with in danger of immediate execution. Casey Affleck plays “loser” so hard and so well that even his teeth — the dirt on them and the spaces between them — emote.