With respect to Casey Affleck’s impending Oscar…

Film: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Year: 2007
Director: Andrew Dominik (also writer)

I first watched Andrew Dominik’s king-size-titled historical fiction feature at a second-run theater/pub hybrid in the early days of 2008. This was not long before the best-lit night of the year in Los Angeles, that seasonal jamboree where squat, blingy statuettes of bald men with etchings at their feet reading “cinematography” and “supporting actor” were presented instead to the movies There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men. Those films deserved their gold, and Jesse James deserved its nominations beside them. Together, this triumvirate of quick-setting classics (with the more conventional 3:10 to Yuma as the estimable runt) defined 2007 as the year of the pensive Western.

I’ve seen Blood, No Country, and Yuma plenty of times over the past years, but only recently did I gear up for a second viewing of Jesse James. Much of its impact was lost on me in ’08, as I recall, though perhaps the employees in my recollection department have been playing games: however underwhelmed I felt back in the day, the extent of what I found I had retained was, given my roller-rink memory, nothing short of a miracle. Virtually the entire visual procession of the film came unearthed, if not intact then with all pieces accounted for, even as my eyes pored over the DVD case. I remembered the simple dirt-road strolling of unnamed and demurely clothed parishioners, and the lusty amber candlelight in an outhouse of sin. I remembered the blearing periphery that DP extraordinaire Roger Deakins imparts to certain scenes, smudging them into antiquity. I remembered the divine, Dreyerian airfeel in the room with the dusty picture. As the movie progressed, every image was suddenly familiar, like refrigerator pinnings that I had continued looking at regularly but stopped really seeing.

What I had forgotten was the soul inside these images. I forgot the pious solemnity of the movie’s quietest moments: a doomed locomotive slicing through the dark, a crowd awaiting the coroner’s tintype exposure of the body of America’s most treasured thief. I had omitted completely the dry, laymanlike voice-over narration, recorded (if I’m not mistaken) by one of the assistant editors, which edges the film toward the frontiers of poetic documentary and folk tribute.

Most of all, I forgot the exact scope and rhythm of the movie: tight, grim, and dwindling. True to its name, this beast is both plain and epic. For a two-point-five-hour biography on the Napoleon of Old West banditry, not a great deal “happens.” There is a sequence in the middle where James seeks and silences the would-be loose lips among his disbanded circle of train knocker-overs; the passage plays as neither explosive nor crafty, but slow and inexorable. This is the momentum that Dominik has found in the whole story. It is a single death knoll that peals and fades over ten years, and swallows up all the damned remnants of the once indomitable James gang.

Given his sizeable talent and immeasurable popularity, it’s curious that so little has been made of Brad Pitt. (This excluding the endless monsoon of five-alarm tabloid drivel, which if tallied would put him volumes ahead of Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Jesus combined.) What I mean is that, as far as I can tell, there is no well-defined or ratified “Brad Pitt persona,” or at least not one that has been weaved through his many impressive performances. If any of his roles warrant this sort of examination, my vote is for the outlaw Jesse James. The main parallel between the two men is obvious: both know what it is to be idolized by the American public on largely superficial grounds. During one scene in Dominik’s film, just after the James boys’ train-tipping swan song, the starstruck teenager who will later shoot his hero in the back recites a newspaper blurb that dwells on James’ “school-girlish” good looks. Gender bending aside (or maybe not), doesn’t this seem all too familiar? Though Pitt was more proactive than, say, Matthew McConaughey at shirking his tenacious “pretty boy” status, I can still remember a time when he was not widely taken as a serious actor.

Pitt proved his grit and dexterity long before playing James, of course, but the role of the short-lived American legend is one of his most essential. This is not, as it easily might have been, a performance of ersatz brooding and troubled-soul lip service, but one of genuine contemplativeness, a true sympathy with another man’s confusion. Pitt plays the Ozymandian outlaw as someone sure of his own skills and nothing else. He knows the look of dishonesty and fear, but cannot fathom why he should so often find it directed at him. He, alone, seems attuned to the sense of almost providential death that pervades the movie, as if the path to his demise has been revealed to him but he can do nothing to diverge from it. The infatuation nursed toward him and his fame by Bob Ford is sorely transparent—to James and everyone else—yet I wonder whether he invites the peril that not even Bob realizes it might predicate.

Bob, meanwhile, continually strives to conceal his throbbing obsession beneath unconvincing displays of autonomy and bravado. At the sensitive age when one cultivates an identity, he has fallen into the trap of borrowing someone else’s—one for which he is disastrously mismatched or under-prepared. That he becomes an actor of a certain repute in the wake of his single-barreled betrayal is no big surprise: he has been acting all along, always desperate to slip into the dashing, daring faces of the men around him, always cracking the mask over his own grin-pricked cheeks. I disliked Casey Affleck in this role the first time I saw him, because he gives an awkward performance of an awkward young man. I hope it’s not too late to recant any unflattering statements I might have made back then. This is terrific work, the kind of movie acting that trickles and sinks many deep, thorny roots into us and does not let go.

Pitt and Affleck are the steeples of film. They are crabbed by a beefy roster of supporting actors, not the least commendable of which are Garret Dillahunt as a squirmy, sallow snitch and Sam Rockwell as the elder Ford, even less stout-hearted and poker-faced than his baby brother. And this, too, is to say nothing of the movie’s innumerable other merits. If I haven’t done them all justice here, it can only be because I have to go outside and be in the sunlight for at least a few minutes today.