It is Roger Deakins‘ cinematography that ensures The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is no ordinary film. Its long, slow pace means the film becomes not merely a dramatised account of James’s last few years but a work of art. Presenting a character study, its measured pace creates a slow burning tension between the two main protagonists, Jesse James (Brad Pitt) and Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). Even the occasional narration interspersed throughout the film adds to its leisurely pace, rather than merely serving to continue the narrative.
Many of the film’s frames are soft edged, adding to an ever present dreamlike quality, perhaps in an attempt to reflect Ford’s obsession with the James gang. His interest in James stems from a childhood fascination with the ‘hero’ and it appears that meeting the James gang is an event that Ford’s life has been building to.
Ford is not particularly likeable for the majority of the film: his attachment to James makes him an almost whining character, dulled by his ever present faith in James’s heroism. However, as the film progresses (and it is here the running time lends itself to increasing the depth of the characters) we begin to understand Ford and can almost empathise with him. Affleck is a revelation at portraying the complexity of Ford, and it is very much his film and his performance that makes the film so fascinating to watch. However, this is not to say that Pitt’s performance is not up to scratch: he is more than adept at portraying the enigmatic man, and we can understand why America was so fascinated with a man who ultimately was little more than a murderer and a robber.