Casey Affleck’s First Run-In With ‘Oscar’
Looking back at Affleck’s Oscar nominated performance as the Coward Robert Ford
During a scene in the first half of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the camera slowly moves on the back of a man — Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt — taking a bath. Steam slowly rises from the milky water, as James slowly contemplates his next move. Mid-bath, Jesse James hears a creak in the doorway.
The shy, awkward Robert Ford — played by Casey Affleck — pokes his head into the room. James, agitated that his bath is being interrupted by Ford, asks him to go away. Ford, who idolizes James and believes him a friend, tries to have a friendly, innocent conversation.
“I ain’t never seen ya without ya gun, neither,” Ford says.
James slowly removes a towel from the chair next to the bath, revealing a gun. Ford stands silently. Then, prophetically, Jesse James, with his face slightly turned toward the door, asks, “I can’t figure it out: you want to be like me or you want to be me?”
Ford does not reply, standing in the doorway with a slight look of anger on his face.
No one could have said it better than Jesse James. The film is filled with quotes and stories that Pitt delivers beautifully. However, it is the “bath question” that is the central conflict of the film. Though Jesse James, in the context of history, is a larger-than-life figure, the film chooses to unravel the mystique behind James’ killer: Robert Ford.
No one shines more in this film than Casey Affleck, who would earn an Academy Award nomination for the role. He is the most interesting man in a film filled with colorful characters. Affleck delivers a performance that incredibly details the emotional and physical conflict of idolizing Jesse James and being the one who kills him.
The film focuses on the events that would, ultimately, kill Jesse James. From the start, James is already a well-known figure. He has assembled, along with his brother Frank, a rag-tag group of men to rob a train. Among the men is Charley and Robert “Bob” Ford. Soon after, some of the men turn on James and plan to turn him in for a big reward. James gets wind of the plan and looks to kill everyone involved with the scheme. Robert Ford begins to turn from idolization of Jesse James to hating the man. Ford becomes part of a conspiracy to kill the famed outlaw.
What Affleck absolutely nails is this transformation of opinion. The first half of the film, Affleck follows James everywhere. Ford suffocates James with attention, to the point where Ford is infatuated with the outlaw. Robert Ford, however, is in love with the past. As a kid, he read — and has kept — every book on James. He talks about past raids as if James was a god. That past blinds Ford in the present. James is nowhere near the god portrayed in the books and pamphlets. Unable to confront a harsh reality, Ford strives for James’ attention and friendship. Affleck nails this obsessive sense of Ford. His innocence is on full display. The audience perfectly senses the happiness inside Ford when James chooses him to stay with James over everyone else. Affleck expertly emotes these feelings.
The tide begins to turn when James beats one of Ford’s cousins, as James is on the hunt for those turning against him. Though Robert Ford knows of the plan, thanks to one of the members telling him, Ford is not part of the plot. Regardless, the beating hits Ford hard. The beating is the event that cracks the infatuation shell surrounding Ford. His opinion of James begins to turn. Though, as the title of the film suggests, Ford is unable to go through with any plan on his own. Though the shell is cracked, glimmers of denial enter Ford’s mind. Affleck portrays this inner struggle masterfully.
Ford sees Jesse James as a cultural hero. But, in a sense, James is only a vessel of the true desires of Robert Ford: fame. All his life, Robert Ford is the butt of the jokes. Within the gang and others, Ford is nothing of great importance. Ford believes he is going nowhere in life, despite being 20 years old at the time the film takes place. Ford realizes fame can come in other ways beside achieving it like James. He soon makes a deal to kill Jesse James with government officials. On top of the fame, Ford is promised a full pardon and money if he does so within ten days of the deal being made.
The second of half is where Affleck gives the performance his all. The struggle of determining when and how to kill a figure that has been the driving force of his life is immense on Ford. At times, he does not know if he could go through with killing James. The decision is made easier with the beating of his cousin and a “joke” James plays on Ford.
When the day comes, Ford is distraught. Despite any reservations, the idea of fame and “revenge” is too strong; Ford shoots James in the back. The death scene is intense. Everyone — Jesse, Robert and Charley — seemingly all know what is coming. To the characters in the film and the audience, the question that remains is can Robert pull the trigger and achieve the fame he desires. He does.
My favorite part of Affleck’s performance is after he kills James. Throughout the film we watch Robert Ford try to attain the level of happiness he strives for as a member of the James’ gang. In the last 30 minutes of the film, Robert Ford has the fame he has been striving for since joining the James’ gang. There is new layer of content that surrounds Ford, which Affleck portrays with ease. A confident timbre in his voice and a easiness to the way he moves, we watch Ford much more comfortable in the role of being famous.
However, the fame does not last. Ford becomes upset when people begin to call him a coward — for the way he killed James. Ten years after killing Jesse James, Robert Ford is shot and killed in a saloon in Colorado. The ending narration sullenly describes Ford’s downfall. There was no public intrigue of Ford’s death like there was with Jesse James. The immediate fame that Robert Ford sought after was unsustainable.
Affleck is a tour de force in the film. He expertly portrays Ford and his flurry of internal conflicts. The role did not call for lengthy monologues or loud outbursts. Affleck achieves in performing the harder, more detailed side of a human: the subtly and emotional state of Robert Ford.
Robert Ford is buried in Richmond Cemetery, located in Ray County, Missouri. There is only a small phrase on his small, gray grave marker. Hopefully, wherever Ford lives on, he is happy with his fame.