Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

16 November 2007

Casey Affleck Double Feature

Last week Julie and I went to see Andrew Dominik's ostentatiously titled The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It's a film heavily influenced by Terrence Malick, which means, of course, that I was very fond of it. It's an extremely slow-moving film, and because of this, is able to take every moment and allow tension to build between characters. The suspense that Dominik is able to achieve with the movie is remarkable simply because he's decided not to hurry his way through the plot. So the movie becomes scary, dangerous, taut. It's also incredibly beautiful. The score is sweet and slow, and each shot is gorgeously designed. It's poetic and loving, in a way, and seems exquisitely choreographed. But the truly remarkable thing about James/Ford is the acting. A slow movie like this is obviously a character-driven thing and Dominik has chosen actors who prove fascinating studies. Brad Pitt is scary and unpredictable as Jesse James, and gives an excellent performance, but attention must be paid to Casey Affleck, who gives what is probably going to be my favorite performance by an actor this year. He's nervous and skittish, while maintaining arrogance. He is, obviously, a coward, too, and Affleck isn't afraid of being viewed like this, he lets us see every nervous, disgusting twitch in Robert Ford's eyes. The rest of the cast is fabulous, too. Sam Shepard, Sam Rockwell (!), Paul Schneider, and Garrett Dillahunt are all wonderful. It's great ensemble work, and the way Pitt plays off of them is masterful. Affleck's role is the flashy one—and, as I said, my favorite—but I should make clear that the movie's center is Pitt. He is all-powerful in every scene he inhabits. Pitt makes acting look easy, which is probably why he gets as little notice as he does. I never knew what his next move in James/Ford was going to be, and it is a testament to his work that someone as famous as he is can still constantly surprise.

At a new friend's encouraging I also saw Gone Baby Gone, which stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman. The film was directed by Ben Affleck. The direction is smart and Affleck's sense of timing and storytelling are very good. I am excited for his next movie. Gone Baby Gone is a mystery story based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (who penned the less-interesting, much less tightly woven Mystic River). Casey Affleck and Monaghan are private investigators who are asked to look into the disappearance of a little girl. Performances are great all around. It's a genre picture much like Mystic River was, but it is interesting and surprising and maintains engaging throughout. It also turns on a powerful moral question that Casey must answer at the end of the film. This works as a moral conundrum for the audience as well. What is especially fascinating, I think, is the way Ben Affleck handles this turning point. Politically, the film has its heart very much in the right place. It's very intriguing morally. Another point about Affleck's direction that I want to make is that the actors aren't Hollywood-pretty. He's shot the film in the streets of Massachusetts and he's made sure to shoot people who look like real people as extras in his film. To my mind, it's a smart move, and the film seems more honest because of it. A quick shout out about my favorite performance in the film, which is by Amy Madigan, Ed Harris's wife. She has a thankless role that disappears halfway through the film, but her characterization is excellent and she creates the film's most beautiful emotional moments.