Andrew Dominik’s long, elegiac story of Robert Ford, the man who killed outlaw Jesse James, is a modern Western masterpiece. I say it’s the story of Robert Ford, even though Brad Pitt plays Jesse James and it’s hard to ignore his presence. Interestingly, Robert Ford is the much more realized character of the two and the film is from his point of view. Played by Casey Affleck, Robert Ford is a twitchy, shy young man brought into Jesse James’ fold near the end of his life. James leads Ford and others in a train robbery and decides to keep Ford along as his sidekick of sorts at home for awhile. They begin an awkward relationship that continues throughout the rest of James’ life, ending when Ford shoots James in the back of the head, killing him, creating notoriety for Ford. This film is the story of their untenable and bizarre bond.
Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Ford is well-played and in fact, upstages Pitt’s portrayal of James. Affleck’s uneasy quality on screen makes for a tone of portrayal that is awkward and filled with depth. Ford never seems to be comfortable in his own skin and Affleck portrays this in every scene. Ford pretends to smile, pretends to smoke, and pretends to get along with everyone. All the while, he’s obsessing over the life and times of James, his mind churning with a never-ending paranoia as he is teased, coaxed, and tempted by visions of grandeur and immortality. Hero worship is a grand understatement for this man. From a young age, Ford apparently collected articles and magazines detailing the exploits of James and basically ended up a “crazed fan” of sorts. Affleck imbues Ford with a starry-eyed naiveté, but also a careless, violent streak, making us believe he not only admires and loves James, but would also be capable of betrayal for the right price. During the denouement of the film, after the assassination, we see Affleck becoming increasingly paranoid and withdrawn. James’ death was the beginning of the end for Robert Ford. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts for Ford, and he could not survive without James.
Making full use of the widescreen photography, Roger Deakins is the film’s other main star, as cinematographer. The Assassination... is loaded with beautiful vistas of the plains, mostly during winter, creating a gray, bleak atmosphere. I sensed a strict adherence to natural light and/or candlelight only during filming. I couldn’t find any scenes that were noticeably lit artificially and this lends great credibility to the whole film. Deakins is one of the true masters of photography around with a long list of credits to his name. He has done great work over his career, capturing many of the Coen Brothers’ movies on film, like No Country for Old Men (2007). One can also see bits and pieces of other films that appear in the images, like the David Lean film Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Robert Altman’s gloomy revisionist Western, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). One could probably just watch the film without sound and even realize how great a movie this is.
Dominik’s use of voiceover narration in the film takes many sections and turns them into historical, documentary-like passages. In fact, these scenes with the narrator recall the brilliant narration in Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War (1990), where the voice-over yielded a refined, mournful tone to the whole thing. Similarly in The Assassination..., the narrator provides a grace and gravity to many scenes. Ultimately, the story-arc, though slow to develop, is what makes this film so great. Ford and James have fate pushing them together throughout the story, creating a palpable pre-destination for their lives. Before you even watch the film, you already know the story. There's nothing surprising about what occurs. We know the history. What is remarkable is that the film also knows that we know. It doesn't pretend to masquerade as if this story is being told for the first time. There is no hiding the fact that the destinies have been foretold. Ford, it seems, was born to kill Jesse James and his entire life had culminated in the one act that he was destined for. James knew he was going to die and basically hand-picked his killer. Dominik’s direction and script emphasize this destiny at every turn, propelling the film onward towards the fateful moment and beyond. This is one of the essential films of the 2000's.