I don't usually get caught up in laurels, but can someone please hand Casey Affleck the Oscar of his choice? While you're at it, find one for Brad Pitt, 'cause together the two held me down and spellbound for the better part of three hours. I'm talking about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford - the movie based on the book based on the untimely demise of a living icon ... Jesse James is alive, but not well. He's only 34, but the famed train robber's glory days are behind him. Tortured by old wounds and his own demons, Jesse drifts from town to town with a leathery retinue of syncophants. One such lackey is Bob Ford, an unproven punk who at once worships, hates and envies the infamous outlaw. Writer Ron Hansen takes these bare facts and weaves together an existential account of Jesse James' final days. His gang's slow mutiny fills every conversation with dread, until the final act of betrayal ends the gunslinger's life and leaves his young assassin haunted by the audacity of the act.
Trippy stuff for a shoot-em-up, but Hansen's powers of description and gift for 19th Century vernacular keeps the reader's boots quaking up until the bloody, ugly end. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be much the same. Using whole chunks of narration and dialogue from the book, the screenplay pays tribute to the author's words in such a way I've not seen before. I don't know if cowpokes of that era really spoke which such wonderful formality, but I'll never think of the fabled James gang as anything less than eloquent. On hand to deliver those lines is a brilliant cast, anchored of course my Mr. Angelina Jolie. Pitt, as he's otherwise known, is perfect. His Jesse is an overly cordial psychopath, a heavy-lidded killer who is as scary as he is gregarious. But the film's real star is Casey Affleck, who submits a life-changing performance as the weasely yet likeable sniper who regrets his fate before Jesse James' corpse ever hits the floor.
Thought long and a ponderous by some critics, The Assassination of Jesse James... is the finest Thinking Man's Cowboy Movie since Clint Eastwood sought his own cinematic vengeance in Unforgiven. It's almost enough to forgive Hollywood for this abomination. Almost.