It's hard to know who the audience is for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The movie is a western, sure, because it's set in the Old West and has a famous outlaw as one of its main characters, but it's almost three hours long and is more concerned with the cult of celebrity than shootouts at high noon.
It's a beautiful film to watch, evoking the feelings of Terrence Malick's earlier work. Slow and ponderous and exquisitely shot by Roger Deakins, it's an art-house film that breaks down conventions. It will speak to some while leaving others cold and wondering why so little is happening.
Brad Pitt is Jesse James, and Casey Affleck is the coward in question, a young man who's obsessed with James' legend and finds himself, finally, at the feet of his hero, a place that eventually leads to the assassination that was immortalized in song (and is performed late in the film by Nick Cave).
Pitt is quite good, absolutely in touch with the wild mood swings and paranoia of his character, but it's Affleck's performance that makes the film so memorable. Usually relegated to sidekick and supporting roles, Affleck's Robert Ford is a fascinating man, determined to make something of himself but lacking the resources to do so. He's like a dog that's kicked over and over but keeps coming back to his master for affection, desperate for some of James' notoriety and fame to rub off on him. He is slow, almost creepy, socially awkward, the butt of the jokes of the rest of the gang and a boy who thinks he is destined for great things, but his only way of obtaining any greatness at all is by being a terrified sycophant, always living in fear of his own life.
There have been a number of notable performances in films this year, but I have not seen one better than Casey Affleck's. It remains to be seen whether audiences will embrace this film, even with Brad Pitt's name on the poster, and it's hard to imagine that any studio actually put up the money to make it, since it goes against many of the established rules for turning a cinematic dime. Either way, Affleck's performance is worth the price of admission.