The United States of America
Is there any one figure from the American West who inspires so much awe and mystery as the legendary Jesse James? Bank robbery, train robbery, stagecoach robbery, murder…all of these things have been accredited to Jesse James’ crime spree in the West after his involvement in the American Civil War. He left behind him a legacy that endures to this day as one of the most romantic figures in American mythology. Some call him a modern day Robin Hood…even though there was no evidence of Jesse or his gang ever giving to the poor. Some call him a bloodthirsty criminal and outlaw…although some argue that he acted as an ex-Confederate insurgent drowning in the consolidation of Lincoln’s new Union. But whatever he truly was does not matter. Jesse James will live on as one of the most enduring symbols of the Wild West for as long as tales of cowboys and cattle drives survive.
Probably because of his larger-than-life status, few films have ever tried to truly explore the man behind the legend. Filmmakers have always been content to depict Jesse as a kind of mythic figure. Many seem to even forget that he was wanted for over a dozen murders. Good or bad, Jesse James was always a hero.
At least until director Andrew Dominik got a hold of him. In 2007 Dominik released what may not only be one of the best examinations of Jesse James ever committed to film, but also one of the best character studies as well. Adapted from Ron Hansen’s book by the same title, Dominik holds Jesse James down under a microscope and scrutinizes every fine detail about who he was. The film has a title as wild as its subject: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Notice how the title doesn’t focus on Jesse James, but instead on the man who would go on to become his killer, Robert Ford. That is because the film isn’t told from Jesse James’ perspective, but by Ford. We first meet him outside of Jesse’s camp out in the woods where they are preparing for one last train robbery before they break up. Ford, who grew up idolizing Jesse, begs his brother Frank James to be allowed to participate. Eventually (and after much protest) Ford is accepted into the gang and strikes up a delicate relationship with Jesse. Ford lives to please Jesse, and Jesse seems content to receive such devotion and admiration. But buried inside of Jesse is a cruel form of resentment that bubbles its way out and passive aggressively lashes out at Ford. In time, the two become locked in a love/hate state of symbiosis. They both need each other. Ford needs Jesse’s approval and Jesse…well, it’s hard to really figure out why he needs Ford. But the need is there and ever present. That is what makes Ford’s eventual betrayal so powerful.
We watch their relationship develop as they plummet towards that fateful day of betrayal where Ford, while living in Jesse’s house with his family, kills him in order to collect the bounty on his head. In a sense, Ford acts as the audience’s surrogate. At first, we, as the audience, are fascinated by Jesse. But then, as we watch him crumble into the paranoid wreck that defined his last years on earth, we feel pity…and then an insidious resentment. When Ford at long last pulls the trigger and ends Jesse’s life, we feel a sigh of relief.
Once the deed is done, the legend of Jesse James explodes. Jesse’s cadaver is placed on display and Ford and Charley start a theater show in Manhattan where they re-create the assassination. Charley slowly succumbs to tuberculosis and guilt and eventually kills himself. Soon, Ford goes from being a hero to a pariah. He receives death threats, is called a coward, and is driven to alcoholism. It seems strange that so many people would spring to the defense of one of the greatest criminals in the history of the West. But the legend has taken hold. People don’t harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the man. Instead, they harass Ford in the name of Jesse James the legend. In a poignant scene in a bar, Ford listens to a musician sing a song glorifying Jesse James, calling him a good, kind man, and then vilifying the cowardly snake who mercilessly shot him. He stands and announces that he is Robert Ford. He collapses, and the bar falls quiet in silent judgment. The legend stands.
In fact, the entire focus of the film is fixated on the nature of legends and the mythology that surrounds certain people. Dominik uses a narrator to frame the entire film as a kind of dramatic history lesson, giving weight to every action of the characters. The cinematography, done by long-term Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, makes use of brown and black color palettes enhanced through a bleach bypass, making the entire film seem older and the color of flaxen wheat. Deakins also used wide-angle lenses mounted onto the front several cameras to create a blurred effect around the borders of the frame. In doing so, Deakins made the entire film feel like a series of ancient photographs come to life. Time-lapse sequences break up the action, reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots,” and add a sense of uneasiness to the film. Occasionally the film will suddenly convert to black-and-white mid-shot, as if Dominik is teasing us and reminding us that we are watching a movie.
And last but not least, the film stars two of the greatest performances of the decade in the form of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Watching the film, I was struck by how similar both performances were in power and scope to Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. They don’t so much play their characters as they immerse themselves in them. Pitt may have given the performance of his career as the narcissistic, paranoid James. The performance is a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance (both of which Pitt is not usually known for) as he always gives a sinister impression that he knows more about the plot and his fellow characters than even the director did. When he asks questions, it feels like he already knows the answer and is just going through the motions for appearance’s sake.
And then there is Affleck. I can’t understand why his brother, Ben Affleck, is so much more famous than him. Casey is the superior actor in every single sense of the word. In this film, he plays an emotional wreck, constantly doubting himself and hiding behind nervous ticks. One wonders if Affleck utilized the method acting techniques made famous by Brando and De Niro. His performance is also magnificently physical. A twitch of the hands, a spasm of facial muscles, and an uncontrolled blink carry more weight and power than even his best lines. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but would go on to lose to Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. While Bardem’s win is not unjustified, it still feels inappropriate as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford would go home at the end of the night empty-handed.
And this begs the question, why is this film so obscure if it is anywhere near as good as I have described it? Possibly because the film had the misfortune of being released the same year as two other Western themed movies by much more prominent directors (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men). Perhaps many were turned off by its two and a half hour running time. But there is a strange part of me that wonders if maybe people didn’t want to see it because they didn’t want to take part in the defamation of Jesse James’ legend. But who am I kidding? Poor distribution and inferior advertising probably killed this film in the box office. But recently I have noticed a strange trend among my fellow movie lovers: it is slowly gaining popularity and renown. As well it should be. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of the great modern Westerns. It is a story of desire, selfishness, sin, and regret. It isn’t so much of a movie as it is a miracle.