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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

The Talented Actor Inside Casey Affleck

This past week, I sat down to watch Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s classic pulp noir The Killer Inside Me, hoping for a misunderstood masterpiece. The film had been much maligned for being “misogynistic” and “violent” and when I hear about films that are so divisive and controversial, it usually piques my interest – chances are, if that many people find something offensive, it’s probably not that offensive. Turns out, I was correct; the film is certainly misunderstood by most of the people who have written about it, but it’s also just as certainly not a masterpiece or even close to it. In fact, it’s pretty disappointing overall.

But the big positive of the film – the reason everyone should check it out – is that it marks the return ofCasey Affleck after a three-year layoff. It was three years ago that Affleck gave two brilliant performances in Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford; his work in those films was so good that they completely changed my perspective on the work he had done prior. He plays two completely different characters in those films; in the first he’s an atypical hero with many layers and in the latter he’s a sort of atypical villain with even more layers. What I realized about Affleck when I was watching those films is that he’s never going to settle for the easy choice and he will complicate your feelings about these characters by the choices he makes.

I first remember seeing Casey Affleck in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For where he starred alongside future brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix and Nicole Kidman. Affleck was a live-wire, ready to fly off the handle at any moment. When he played a similar role in Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, I just figured that that was who Affleck was, that he wasn’t doing much acting at all, especially in Good Will Hunting since the part was co-written by his brother Ben. But now when I look back on those films, seeing how subtle Affleck has been in his last handful of movies, they look like masterpieces of kinetic energy. He plays the character of Morgan inGood Will Hunting as such a stuttering buffoon and he plays it so well that we are convinced that it’s not acting at all.

But for me, it wasn’t until yet another Van Sant film, Gerry, that I really took notice of Affleck. Some would say it’s not really an actor’s film since it mostly involves Affleck and Matt Damonwalking through the desert, every once in a while stopping to say something unimportant about going to the “thing.” But, to me, there is no greater challenge for an actor than to try and command an almost bare screen. It’s really just Affleck, Damon and a bunch of desert. Even in Cast Away, Zemeckis allows Tom Hanks to befriend a volleyball and talk; Van Sant strips away the dialogue from Gerry, forcing Damon and Affleck to convey emotions with their facial tics and the way they stand or they way they walk. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these were terrific performances, but I do think Affleck stood out to me because I realized that he was willing to be quiet on screen. Many actors are not so willing.

Then came Steve Buscemi’s Lonesome Jim, another film where Affleck was quiet, allowing himself to express his unhappiness and his loneliness with certain telling actions like a tiny hitch in his arm when he’s bringing a cup to his lips. His eyes are perpetually droopy, like he could not only fall asleep at any moment, but could actually just drop dead from a lack of enthusiasm about life. In other words, he is absolutely defeated, which is not an easy emotion to convey subtly.

And then there was an eye-opening performance in a terrible movie, the remake of The Last Kiss. In that film, Affleck plays a husband who is trying to make his marriage work and slowly faces the realization that if he’s truly going to make his newborn son happy, he’s going to have to extricate himself from an unhappy marriage. There are many other showy parts in the film, involving loud characters speaking at a high volume, but Affleck takes the most difficult part in the film – a nice, normal, loving husband and father – and makes it the most compelling element. In a film full of unreality, Affleck makes every scene involving his character feel painfully real.

Then came his breakout year in 2007 with Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, both terrific films and both performances were worthy of nominations, but only the latter received one. What really makes both of those portrayals so memorable is that Affleck undergoes changes throughout the course of both movies. A change in a character’s personality – from the beginning of the film to the end – is one of the most difficult tasks for an actor to be saddled with; it’s hard to make an audience believe that this change is convincing.

Most actors rely on histrionics and most roles require them to change perceptibly throughout the film. In both of those Affleck performances, he is noticeably different at the end of the film, but it’s tough to pinpoint exactly where the change occurred. It’s because there isn’t a single moment and it’s not a big change, it’s a subtle tonal shift that pushes through gradually and Affleck is a confident enough actor that he doesn’t feel the need to alert the audience by saying “look at me, this is my big moment.”

In The Assassination of Jesse James, the greatest work Affleck does is after the titular act is committed, when we see Robert Ford’s depression after the fact. We have witnessed Ford commit a cowardly act of murder for nothing more than fame, but instead of despising him for this, we truly pity him after seeing the effect of his acts. The choices that Affleck makes in his final, haunting scene are so out of the ordinary.

And that is what truly makes Casey Affleck one of the best actors today. Actors don’t have a lot of control over the lines they say or what the script commands them to do. What an actor can control is how they say those lines, how they stand, how they walk, how they carry themselves, how they drink a drink or eat their food. Acting is about choices and the great actors make difficult ones. And Affleck never makes an easy or conventional choice and as a result, his characters feel real.

The Killer Inside Me follows a sadistic deputy sheriff named Lou Ford. There were so many different ways that a role like this could be played, but Affleck makes the startling choice to be as soft-spoken and unassuming as possible. There are only three or four moments in the entire film where there is even a smidgen of emotion on his face and boy, are those big moments. But the calm way in which he approaches the role, allowing Lou Ford to seem like a decent fellow to most people, it almost suckers us into believing it too, that’s how good he is at being duplicitous.

It’s the film – and the filmmaker’s – fault that more couldn’t be done with Affleck’s performance or with the central conceit. Affleck is stranded because Winterbottom seems more interested in exploring the how-to instead of the how could. Winterbottom cheats a little bit by trying to explain away Ford’s sadist tendencies with flashbacks that pinpoint the root of the problem, but it feels a little flaccid and unformed. What I really wanted was to just see Ford live in this world a little bit more before his first rampage, allowing the character to breathe. Unfortunately, Winterbottom tries to get to the point too swiftly, showing Ford’s dark side within the first ten minutes of the film. But it’s to Affleck’s credit that he’s able to pull us back and confuse us for a bit longer. The beats of the film just feel off and there is no sense of propulsion except for Affleck’s performance, the only thing compelling us forward.

The scenes that have everyone up in arms are the scenes in which Affleck beats Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson. It’s the former that has everyone crazed as Affleck repeatedly punches Alba in the head until she is black and blue and bloody, her face mangled. What really makes the scene uncomfortable is not necessarily the act itself – which is certainly horrific – but the way in which Affleck plays the scene. He pauses a little bit between punches, like he’s relishing this moment – which, of course, he is.

(But therein lies my issue with the outcry from people claiming that this scene makes any of the filmmakers misogynistic. See, the character is a misogynistic psychopath. Just because you make a film about racism, it doesn’t make the filmmakers racist either. Sure, you could just not make the film, but then why make any art at all? Let’s just make more Smurfs movies!)

It’s too bad that Winterbottom’s build-up to that scene is a lot more interesting than the fall-out from it. The movie is pretty flat during the middle portion. But once again it’s Affleck to the film’s rescue in a scene where he ’s calmly chasing a man who has witnessed one of his murders through the town square. There is never a glimmer of doubt on Affleck’s face that he won’t get away with the crime he just perpetrated. The most amazing thing is the way Lou Ford, the character, tries to get into “character” by immediately saying to the man who witnessed this murder something along the lines of, “how could you do this?” The way in which Ford projects his own terrible act onto the witness and the way in which Affleck convincingly gets there is truly unbelievable. It’s too bad the rest of the film – and indeed, the rest of the actors – is on a different level.

Unfortunately for all of us, this is the last we’ll see of Affleck for a bit. He’s got nothing in production right now except for the documentary he directed about Joaquin Phoenix’s rap career. But Affleck is such a talent that we need to see him in front of the camera more often. A three year layoff and now at least another year more is unacceptable for me. Despite my issues with The Killer Inside Me, I have no qualms about Affleck in it. My only problem is that I want to see him again soon.

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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One Response to “The Talented Actor Inside Casey Affleck”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon