Brad Pitt did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.
Of course one should not act like it is too much of an intangible thing though since Pitt's work here goes beyond simply some intelligent casting. Pitt's performance also goes to make the legend himself. There are scenes that imagine the myth of Jesse particularly the opening scene where the narration describes Jesse as a figure of such magnitude. Pitt matches this in his manner that seems truly otherworldly as he looks into the sky as though he is above all of it. That scene is not seemingly within reality though but that is not the limit to Jesse as the figures of the dime novels, and the strange admiration of so many who hear about his exploits. The single robbery scene also seems to create this image as Jesse prepares to board the train, Pitt's movements are singular in the way every step again feels as though he is floating in the moment. It is an effortless quality that Pitt brings to Jesse when he does appear to be this figure. There are other moments throughout his performance where you see Pitt as this man. It is not overarching, he is not some demi-god or anything close to it, but Pitt allows that story to be told.
Jesse isn't quite that though as seen by one of the earliest scenes where Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) first comes to join the James gang in order to rob a train. Pitt's good in the scene because he does not make Jesse any sort of legend when he's shooting the breeze with his men, he's just a pretty normal fellow as he talks about nonsense with his men. There's even some warmth in this way as Pitt shows Jesse being someone who treats with his men, and there's a certain camaraderie. The camaraderie is not too strong though. There are also the mostly silent scenes where the film shows Jesse living with his family or interacting in the public with people other than members of his gang. Pitt is good in these scenes as he shows Jesse just as a fairly standard husband and father. Pitt plays it as though cares for his kids and his wife to be sure, but there is nothing notable about it, as though it is not enough to be content. This side of the man does not quite seem to break the image, rather just showing that there is more to him than that image, but that is not all there is to Jesse as seen through the train robbery. The robbery might begin in the fantasy of myth but it ends in reality.
Although the way he might board the train is that of the romantic hero, once he gets down to business Jesse is anything but. Even though he is mostly masked and we only see his eyes the real nature of Jesse is revealed by Pitt as he confronts the money man on the train. There is nothing pretty about what Pitt shows in this moment as he simply portrays a blunt brutality as Jesse beats down the men almost to death and is about to shoot him. There seems to be a bit of enjoyment in his eyes as he almost kills the man, and there's not a hint of remorse in his actions. It is perhaps Jesse at his most honest because Pitt puts such unnerving comfort into Jesse as he performs this violent act. With this Pitt shatters any idea that Jesse is far removed from the earth, rather he is much closer to a psychopathic thug. Any moment in which this side appears is quite chilling due to Pitt suggesting the ease Jesse has in this behavior as though it is truly him. Pitt is incredibly menacing in the role because he ensures that we keep this side of the man in mind. This acts especially effective in the scenes where Jesse interrogates some of his men. Pitt almost seems to encourage calm as he portrays Jesse almost looking through the man, but the fear is real as his propensity for violence never leaves his eyes.
Pitt creates a particularly interesting chemistry with Affleck. Ford, even though he will be the one to kill James, Ford is obsessed with James. Pitt's excellent in his way with Affleck, as he's not the modest celebrity trying to avoid the fame, nor does he the type who has contempt for his fan. Pitt rather expresses something quite fascinating in his performance, and takes no option as a celebrity might treat a fan, because Jesse knows his own celebrity is in a way false, with the man so entranced by him though Jesse must directly face the idea of his own image. Pitt plays it as though Jesse is almost entranced by back whenever Ford elaborates on his views of Jesse. It is not that he is entranced by Ford, but rather Pitt shows Jesse as a normal being able to see himself as something he is not. Of course neither can be entranced for long because reality must set in, and when Ford treats Jesse as man, Jesse does the same for Ford, as Pitt brings an open disdain towards him whenever it is clear Ford sees Jesse for what he is. This leaves Jesse to only see Ford for what he is just another man who might lead to his eventual downfall, which seems to be the only thing that awaits Jesse.
A mostly unstated idea in the film is where Jesse is in this point in his life. These are not the days of his rough riding around the county as the train robbery is the last robbery for his more level headed brother Frank, who knows that their way of life cannot continue. Although it is not stated openly Pitt exudes a certain discontent in Jesse as though he is simply unable to live without being an outlaw. Again it is not something focused upon but Pitt conveys this intensity in James, a quiet paranoia in him, as though nothing is safe to Jesse. Even though we are not given much of the efforts of the authorities to finally take him down, Pitt actually is able to show this simply through his performance as Jesse becomes more withdrawn as though the world is closing in around him. Pitt presents Jesse as staring into the void as death is all that seems to await him, and Pitt is haunting as he portrays Jesse as a man who knows sentence has already has been passed he's just waiting for the executioner. There rarely a moment of comfort as Pitt only continues to grow this despair that Jesse wears within him, and only moments where this seems to break are the sporadic violent outbursts. Pitt brings a desperation even in these though as though his psychopathic tendencies, his ability to instill fear in others, is one of the few things that keeps him alive. The assassination itself is made surprisingly heartbreaking by Pitt because he does not have Jesse going out like a hero, really even like a villain, or even with an ounce of surprise, rather he sadly has Jesse accept his death as the only way for him to be put out of his life of misery. I do have to say I suppose that there are a few lines where Pitt has slightly off delivery which is often the case with his performances. That does not diminish the power of this performance as the impact of it has grown every time I've re-watched the film. It's tremendous work that deserves mention right alongside Affleck's masterful performance.