By the end of this film, one can’t help but feel they’ve been misled a little by the character of Robert Ford, or perhaps, not so much by the character but by the characterization. Initially Ford comes off as a lesser dimwit in the midst of dimwits. A slow-moving type with grandeur delusional perhaps only in the presence of one so grand as Jesse James. As things progress, Ford proves himself to be, at least in his company, capable of something. As things progress it appears that perhaps it is not his mettle that proves him less than, but simply his youth. Perhaps, had Ford lived a different life in a different place, he would have done something of note, and made a name for himself other than “coward.” As it is, the only way Ford could ever achieve the notoriety he was so desperate for, was to murder one as notorious as Jesse James. And so, he found what he was looking for.
Casey Affleck astounds here. He traverses a spectrum of desperation, and youth, and panic both controlled and not, and passion, and love intertwined seamlessly with respect, and feigned maturity, and a great need that is perhaps his penultimate connection to the audience, and finally, resignation. He finds himself in so many characterizations that Robert Ford becomes nearly spectral. Intangible. Only in the end do we see the real Robert Ford and not a misguided youth wanting only to prove his worth.
Second to Casey Affleck’s performance is the environment within which he resides. This is an America that, until now, has only been described so well in books. This isn’t John Wayne, or Clint Eastwood. This is a measured and stark snapshot of a reality we can’t come close to connecting with. The summer is hot and congested, buggy and rarely mild. The winter months capped with rain and fog and mud and in the midst of it all is the possibility of blood. Existence is not a given, nothing is promised, and sleeping with a gun isn’t a bad idea.
It is within this bandit lifestyle that Robert Ford exists, and in the same way we all wish to answer the question of, “what role will our existence play in the grand scheme,” he struggles to find an answer. And he does, and it is disappointing, and we the audience, against all our better judgment, feel bad for the coward Robert Ford. He becomes our antihero, driven to the outer reaches of civilization by the same masses that held him up just post the infamous shot he fired. And he, in all his complexity, in all the manifestations of his young life, becomes simply a cautionary tale. And that is the depressing truth of a struggle for fame in a world where sometimes death is the only thing worth living for.