Sunday, April 6, 2008

Casey at the Bat

Is Casey Affleck a movie star? Until recently I didn't even know he was an actor, lazily predisposed to follow the conventional wisdom that he was nothing more than Ben's squirt sibling -- a bit player in high-profile movies, nondescriptly if inoffensively occupying the corners of the frame. Soderbergh has turned this into a running gag in the Ocean's series, where Affleck The Younger and Son Of Caan play the cogs in Clooney and Pitt's elaborate scams: they are bag carriers and bellhops, delivery men and slave laborers. Affleck's tasks are frequently thankless (such as donning a cheesy mustache and inciting a Mexican workers' strike), yet essential to the entire operation. The throwaway fun of his performances lies in his pent-up resentment at being unappreciated, a whininess that would be intolerable if it weren't barely audible.

Recently a pair of films have brought Affleck from the margins to the center, expanding and deepening his persona from those earlier films. In The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he plays the latter of the titular characters, the youngest and least impressive of the hangers-on in the waning years of the James Gang. An early scene shows Ford's bumbling attempts to ingratiate himself among his would-be peers -- "The more you talk," Frank James (Sam Shepard) growls, "the more you give me the willies" -- but Jesse (Brad Pitt), who bitterly senses the salad days are coming to an end, keeps him around as a mascot, worker-for-hire and sycophant, alternately flattering Ford when he needs him and dismissing him when he wears out his welcome.

Directed by Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James moves with the kind of deliberate pace that toes the line between mesmerizing and deadly dull, but the rhythms of the film (aided by Roger Deakins' cinematography and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's score) effectively convey the way of life -- how people moved, how people talked -- from an earlier time. Dominik devotes more attention than one might expect to a gallery of supporting characters, including Dick Liddil (the charismatic Paul Schneider), Ed Miller (Deadwood's Garret Dillehunt), Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and older brother Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell). (Unfortunately, this is another major recent film -- even with Mary-Louise Parker and Zooey Deschanel -- where women are inexplicably given short shrift.) Yet Dominik also appears to be attempting to modernize his story as a tale of celebrity, and it is here that the film both exposes itself to its greatest risks and reaps its biggest dividends.

At first I thought Pitt was miscast as Jesse James, but a tabloid icon, not an actor, is what the role calls for. Yet it is Affleck, playing Robert Ford as a 19th-century fanboy, who brings more to the table. Affleck adroitly settles into Dominik's mise-en-scene, carrying himself with a slump-shouldered awkwardness and pipsqueak voice that makes him the butt of jokes. After fulfilling his pact with government officials (including a surprising James Carville, who energizes his scenes), and Ford transforms from a figure of derision to a hated man, Affleck reveals a gravity and sorrow he's never shown before. The Assassination of Jesse James has tried many a viewer's patience, but I found it a lovely meditation on the flesh-and-blood underpinnings of myth -- why some individuals receive our applause while others our scorn.

In Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck's exceptionally fine directorial debut, Casey Affleck is Patrick Kenzie, a young private detective in Boston hired to investigate the disappearance of a local girl. The girl's mother (Amy Ryan), a druggie and screw-up, is prone to distraction, and Kenzie's partner (Michelle Monaghan) -- both professionally and romantically -- tries to beg him off the case; but Kenzie is the kind of bullheaded guy who pursues more doggedly the more obstacles are put in his path, and his investigation puts him uncomfortably between both the Boston cops and the criminal underworld.

I haven't read Dennis Lehane's novel, but the movie version explores his recurring Mystic River themes of abused children and moral quandaries. Ben Affleck and his co-screenwriter Aaron Stockard have reportedly streamlined the byzantine plot and added a dose of grim humor, while Affleck's direction is sure-footed and character-driven, rounding out the rough edges of the story. Ed Harris and John Ashton (whom I haven't seen since Midnight Run) are terrific as a pair of police detectives assigned to the case; Morgan Freeman, as the chief of police with personal tragedy in his past, both fulfills and subverts his archetypal paragon of authority. Amy Ryan got a lot of attention for this film, and her character, while showy (and foul-mouthed), is an authentic portrayal of a narcissist whose genuine concern for her daughter revolves around her own self-interest.

As for Casey Affleck, he spins a present-day variation on Robert Ford -- more level-headed and conscience-driven, yet still lacking in the respect he feels is his due. If Kenzie may be, to paraphrase Lisa Schwarzbaum, not as smart as he thinks he is, he's also smarter than others give him credit for. I don't know how far Affleck can go as an actor, but for now it's fascinating to watch the tension unfold between those who want to push him back to the fringe and his stubborn refusal to relinquish the stage.


Rene said...

Casey Affleck as Bob Ford was so good he gave me the Frank James' "willies".

Roger said...

I would have preferred the elimination of the narrative which only added to the inertness of this film. Besides, most theater audiences already know the saga of Jesse James. Otherwise, it was a great film!

Craig said...

I can see why a lot of people don't like the narrator, but it's obviously an intentional choice on behalf of the director. I can only guess that the narrator is there to reflect the theme of the movie: that we're listening to a dispassionate voice of history tell a story that's deeply entrenched in myth. Stephanie Zacharek razzed the film as being akin to "a book on tape," but I think that's sort of the point.

Anonymous said...

James Carville's fine cameo performance caught me off guard. I was engrossed waiting for the drool he used to flash during his CNN days.

Anonymous said...

In the Casey at the Bat post you mentioned their "way of life -- how people moved, how people talked --." We also learned what the curious did for amusement. They paid to see an infamous outlaw being shot in the back by his infamous killer, re-enacted 100 times by Bob Ford and his brother Charley.

Roger said...

Craig, thanks for your input. I read Stephanie's comment concerning "a book on tape" and now I don't feel so foolish. She thought this type of movie might have started the narrative trend. I do believe, though, some of the biblical and early gangster films were the first.

I now understand why the Director selected a narrator. It was to re-enforce the harsh living conditions during that time-period.